Abysmal pessimism

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Theodor Adorno

“I established a theoretical model of thought. How could I have suspected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails?” These are the words of one of the most famous of the Frankfurt School critical theorists, Theodor Adorno, during an interview in 1969, shortly before his death, and it illustrates really well and clearly the gap between academics and the rest of the population. Stuart Jeffries’ interesting and fast-paced multi-biography/overview of an era rightly pinpoints that fact right from the beginning and sets the tone. Marxists as they were, the Frankfurt boys never really followed up on Marx’s suggestion that philosophers should quit just interpreting the world and do some hands-on work instead, to bring about a change in society. Alas, just theory it remained. Possibly because what they were advocating was not possible or realistic. But it sure was confusing doom and gloom.

Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Benjamin, Fromm, Pollock were the founders of the Frankfurt school of critical theory. They were the first generation that is. The ones that gave it fame. As with many revolutionary ideas, their’s was born out of a revolt against their fathers and the bourgeois existence they were leading. Jewish sons in prosperous pre-WWII Frankfurt, living a life of privilege enabled by capitalism and the industrial revolution. So being privileged, educated and bored, they decided that capitalism was in fact dehumanising, dominating and what not, and that it prevented humans from living their true natural life (never really explaining what they meant by this). They became Marxists. But as the Marxist Revolution failed in Germany, replaced by the modernist, exceptional and still very capitalist Weimar era, they concluded that it was hopeless to expect the working classes to revolt for their own good (the condescending and patronising tone will not escape you), and that a critical theory by elite intellectuals  with a multidisciplinary approach against the mechanisms of capitalist domination was needed. They wanted also to give a psychological explanation for the failure of the masses to embrace the revolution, choosing instead consumer society and capitalist “control”.

Max Horkheimer

So they critiqued into abysmal pessimism, never giving hope about a possible way out of the supposed nightmares they were seeing everywhere (some of them even glorified poverty).

Jeffries’ narrative is entertaining and sometimes even challenging to follow when philosophical, sociological or psychological concepts are explained. But it is a great introduction to a very important critical and societal movement that still has repercussions today, especially in our technological almost dystopian world where their theories finally make some sense (but still give no solutions). With each chapter dedicated to a decade, we follow them and their mental processes from the early developments of the school, to their anguished and shocked escapes from Nazi rule (this understandably had an effect on their pessimism about the possibility of hope in modern society), to their US exile and fame. Walter Benjamin’s tragic fate is particularly well covered. The contradictions and their hypocrisy around their ideology are the most flagrant during the American period. As fellow exile in California Bertolt Brecht often reminded everyone, they were traitors to the revolution, “they had become prostitutes in their quest for foundation support, selling their skills and opinions as commodities in order to support the dominant ideology of oppressive US society.” An ideology they had created themselves with their critique of capitalism. Strangely enough none of them (not even Brecht) fled to the Soviet Union, a system they regarded as just another totalitarianism. 

Herbert Marcuse

Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse are in a way largely the creators of the American and European New Left in the 60’s (to which the postmodernists later added themselves). A movement lead and fed by another group of privileged youngsters in revolt against their fathers’ way of life. The same story repeating itself and highlighting another controversial legacy: the fact that they connected the Enlightenment to capitalism and thus saw science, reason, and empirical evidence as well, as a form of oppression. Rings a bell, right? I particularly like the fact that the author closed the book on an optimistic note by presenting the leader of the 2nd generation Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas. The 92 year old still works on a new vision that would finally give hope.

The book does suffer from some repetitions and some bad editing, but nothing very off putting. If you want to know more about what is happening to us today, you will enjoy the read, and you will use the excellent notes and further readings sections to learn more about the works of some exceptional men, flawed humans but courageous thinkers. You will be exasperated by the obvious contradictions and the eliteness of their ideological positions (to which they seemed oblivious), but you will also feel a special connection to them, as they are all of us thinking out loud. What makes a human life worth living?

Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries
Verso Books, UK, 2016
440 pages

Victorian “detective fever”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

What a marvellously entertaining book, full of the “detective fever” as one of the main characters of The Moonstone would say !! It was a fairly new concept in the 1860s and this story was rightly hailed as a first. It was originally published in episodes (faithfully reproduced in my edition, so that the reader who wishes to experience the reading thrills of the Victorians, waiting patiently between each episode, can do so) in Charles Dickens’s magazine All The Year Round, and later adapted for the stage in 1877. But it is also full of romance, friendship, social commentary, and humour.

First edition, 1868

A dashing young gentleman, Franklin Blake, returns to the house he was raised in in Yorkshire to gift his cousin Rachel with a unique and magnificent gem, the Moonstone. The gem was left to Rachel by her uncle, Colonel Herncastle, who is believed to have stolen it from a sacred shrine during a battle somewhere in the British Indian Empire. It thus carries a curse, all the more so because three Brahmins have since then been on the hunt for it, to return it to its original place and appease the God of the Moon. But as soon as the diamond is given to Rachel on her 18th birthday, and after she shows it off on a beautiful dress at her dinner party, the Moonstone is stolen. The house is in turmoil. The first of a legendary array of fictional detectives is introduced, the taciturn Sergeant Cuff. He is confronted with strange events: Rachel, clearly shaken, refuses to help with the investigation and develops a sudden anger and hatred for her beloved Franklin. A hunchbacked housemaid, a former thief given a second chance at normal life, starts behaving erratically. And what about those Indian jugglers always seen around town and around the estate? Betteredge the butler is baffled and saddened by the whole situation. The household he has loved and cared about for his whole life is engulfed in a nightmare. Is the diamond really cursed?

Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone is an epistolary novel and this is well suited for showing off the different characters in the story, as they tell it. As Collins explains in the preface, he attempted “to trace the influence of character on circumstance”, or how people act under certain emergencies. Through the direct narratives of the larger-than-life Betteredge, the existentialist and impulsive Blake, the hilarious religious spinster miss Clack, and others, Collins not only gives us a mystery to savour but also a precise and very progressive critic of his time. Class differences are questioned and mocked, English respectability is uncovered, warts and all, by the drama unfolding (the schemings, money dealings and debt), objectivity and subjectivity are discussed (how human beings arrive at conclusions and how they are often easily misled). Most astonishingly, the book is also a barely disguised critique of the materialism of the Empire, and the intrusion of the British upon a spiritual world they can hardly grasp and that they see as preposterous.

A summery or a wintery feel-good read yes, but one that also gives intellectual satisfaction. 

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
My edition : Wordsworth Classics, UK, 1999 (Intro by David Blair)
434 pages

A Haitian tragedy

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“I implore you, the last request of a dying man for a knock on the door may come at any moment–if you have abandoned one faith, do not abandon all faith. There is always an alternative to the faith we lose. Or is it the same faith under another mask?”

The Comedians is a reread for me, but 30 years have passed and this second time, being older and wiser, Graham Greene’s words have their whole meaning. They touch a nerve. Who are we, and why do we always play a part? For power? Maybe, but thankfully not only.

First edition original cover

It’s sometime in the 1960s in Haiti. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his secret police, the Tontons Macoute are in power, a brutal dictatorship unleashing terror and violence on the island, “an evil floating slum”. Papa Doc is a “bullwark against Communism” (that simple phrase sums up Greene’s view of American foreign policy at that time) and his regime has driven most foreigners and tourists away, ruining the economy, while at the same time raking in millions of US Aid for his personal coffers. 

Brown (the narrator), Jones, and the Smiths (yes, you read the names right) get off the boat at Port-au-Prince with their hopes, their dreams, their insecurities, their past, their doubts, but also their beliefs and their own interpretations of reality. Basically they are all of us, Comedians of life, more or less committed to a purpose, some with more integrity than others, but ultimately human when facing important moments. Brown has inherited a hotel from his estranged mother, and has a love affair with the German wife of a South American ambassador; the Smiths are innocent idealist Americans who want to open a vegetarian centre (in a country where hunger and poverty are rife); and Jones, well, nobody really knows who Jones is and what he does. They are thrown into the Haitian tragedy head-on and their lives are changed forever by the decisions they are forced to take when life is no longer a simple play.

My edition from 1976

This dark story is a marvellous book, exquisitely written, sometimes a black comedy but mostly an eye-opening tale about what it means to witness a rogue state in power. The tension, the secrecy, the stuffiness of the climate, the poverty, the hopelessness for a better tomorrow, it all jumps at you from the pages. The reader is drawn into this nightmarish world without apology, and yet, strangely, as the narrator, feels at home, enveloped by the palms, the heat, the disfunctionality, the voodoo, the stories the characters tell each other, by the human frailty and condition distilled chapter after chapter. The Graham Greene touch. It cannot really be explained, it has to be witnessed. 

Published in 1965, the book was later turned into a screenplay (by Greene himself) for a film staring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Most importantly, it is one of Greene’s most political novels. With it, he wanted to deal a deadly blow to Duvalier whom he called “a mad man”. Greene had visited Haiti a few times and had never felt such fear anywhere, still having nightmares about it many years later. He wanted the world to know. Papa Doc was furious, and banned the book and the film. Greene, wisely, never returned.

It needs to be read and reread, a beautifully sad book that stays with you. 

The Comedians by Graham Greene
Published September 30th 1976 by Penguin Books
Paperback, 286 pages

A few Summer reads

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers is the “other” queen of the crime novel, and now that I’ve read my first book by her, I’m thinking it’s rather unfair. As readers often point out, her detective novels are a mixture of Poirot and Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster, but they also seem a bit more sophisticated. At least that is the impression I got from my first foray into her work. I’ve had this on my shelves for ages, and never gave it a chance. Now I’m hooked.

Published in 1927, Unnatural Death is Sayers’ third mystery. Her leading character is a gentleman of means with too much time on his hands: Lord Peter Wimsey. He lives in London on Picadilly, and often joins his Scotland Yard friend Parker on police inquiries. During a dinner one evening, the duo is told about the death of a wealthy spinster, miss Agatha Dawson. The doctor who treated miss Dawson for her terminal cancer tells them that miss Dawson had maybe just another half year to live, but that her earlier death while she was still very much alert and stable arose his suspicion about something being wrong. The great niece of the old lady, Miss Whittaker, is her only inheritor (and in-house carer), and as miss Dawson was aware of that and in agreement with the fact, an official will was never made. Still the doctor is puzzled. The ongoings at the old lady’s house during his service and the strange story of her life leads him to confide in the two friends. Parker is hesitant, thinking there is absolutely nothing there, but Wimsey  smells a rat and decides to solve the almost non-existent case.

The narrative is joyous and serious at the same time, with many great puns and innuendos. It keeps one alert and focused throughout. What makes it more sophisticated as a crime novel of the 1920s are the different thematics, especially the treatment of lesbianism (referred to by some characters as “not the marrying kind”) and racism.  

A recommended light summer read. I already ordered the next one…

Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers
Harper&Row, Perennial Mystery Library, New York, 1987 (my edition)
241 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

“News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read.”…

Reading Scoop reminds you that it’s often not wise to trust a news source, and it’s very troubling. Isn’t journalism about freedom of expression, objectivity, and upholding democracy? Up to a point… 

As is now famously known, It was William Randolph Hearst, the press baron, who said to one of his reporters complaining from Cuba that there was no war to cover that he should “furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war”. And this is exactly what Scoop is lampooning to perfection. In a classic case of mistaken identity, young William Boot, who writes small articles about countryside animals for The Daily Beast (!) is sent against his will to far away Ishmaelia in Africa to cover a possible revolution. Torn from his country estate in good old England, leaving behind a batty upper-class family, he has no idea what he is doing or how it’s all happening, but he meets a great number of other fellow reporters on the same mission and settles down to a routine. He quickly realises that the whole thing is not about news at all but about getting a story that will satisfy the editors back home and the readers’ thirst for sensationalism. What is really happening in Ishmaelia is also not very clear (and also very batty) and gives Waugh a good excuse to ridicule international politics and diplomacy, and most of all to actually hint at the fact that Western powers were ready to provoke a coup and a war in an African country, so as to appropriate its natural resources for themselves. I will not spoil the plot, but Boot goes heroically through numerous adventures, manages to encounter love on the way, and learn a few lessons about the vicissitudes and betrayals of life.

Written in 1938, Scoop was inspired by Waugh’s own travels as a journalist to Abyssinia (Ethiopia), just before Mussolini’s invasion in 1935. It is amazingly funny, witty, and subtle in a true “British humour” way one rarely finds anymore. It is also very bold for its time, satirising as it does the press in its heyday and denouncing western schemings in underdeveloped countries. It is a story about human nature as well, about the chasm between country and city people, about the muddled beliefs in all sorts of political ideologies, and the racism that was normal and matter-of-fact at the time. Although many modern readers complain about the racist allusions (again exasperatingly, as books need to be read in a historical context), what strikes me is how it’s the white people who are being completely and rightly ridiculed in this instance, except maybe Boot who serves as a Redemptor for a humanity gone mad.

Find it and read it. You will not be disappointed. You will be left with a nervous smile maybe, one of those that come about when things are funny but leave you with a slight bitter aftertaste, something cynical, when you want to slap people. For me, Waugh always has a lot of characters I want to slap. It means he got it right.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
Penguin Modern Classics, UK, 2011
304 pages

The fight for historical truth

Rating: 5 out of 5.

How do we bridge the gap between the dead and the living? We study history. And how do we study history? Well, that is probably the hottest question debated since the late 1980s of the 20th century.

In Defence of History is not a new book. It was written in 1997, and it is amazing to see how little has changed in the controversy and how things have gotten even worse. If you are feeling lost about what the study of history is, if you are puzzled by the recent brouhaha over cultural race theory (and let me clear that for you right away: CRT is not history), if you are revolted by historical revisionism, and why there seems to be always more of it, this is a book for you. It is still an important read for history students and is frequently assigned, while still being very accessible to the general reader. A topic that should really not be ignored by any of us.

Evans is a British historian of modern history and is mostly focused on Germany. His acclaimed three-volume history of the Third Reich is simply amazing. He is also the author of Death in Hamburg, on the peculiar cholera epidemic in that city in 1892. Concerned by the fast spread of postmodernist theory since the 1980s, he embarked on this historiographical addition not to take sides, but to explain how both traditional and postmodernist historians can help keep history a major academic field, and save it from the nihilistic fangs of a growing group of hyper-relativist critics who refuse to see history as anything else but an extension of the literary critical field: a work of fiction onto which any meaning can be attached, basically denying that historical truth exists.

Richard J. Evans
Photo by James Franklin Gresham

The book is very comprehensive and divided into 8 chapters. Evans, in the tradition of E. H. Carr, explains what is history, how it became an academic field, what its purposes and techniques are, how it has evolved and how postmodernism brought many major and welcome changes to the profession.

He takes time to explain where postmodernism comes from, and cites numerous moderate and extremist postmodernist historiographers and researchers in intellectual history, sometimes magnificently debunking their claims, sometimes praising them for prescient and new insights.  Most of all, he asks us to consider the dangerous divide created by all the in-fighting: society against the individual and vice versa, hyper-relativism and deconstructionism eating away at years and years of marvellous social history (itself a major victory of the second half of 20th century over old elitist political history. Not to say political history is automatically elitist or old-fashioned today). 

Evans reminds us that knowledge is power, and that it should be used very carefully. And that objectivity is to be strived for (something he discusses in detail in the last chapter), and that facts and evidence matter. What people have been through is not a story that can be read in different ways according to one’s mood, or played with to prove a theoretical point. The truth of their lives exists, and we can make sure they are not forgotten by making good evidence-based history to the best of our ability. And when the truth is found, accept it no matter how difficult it is. 

The edition of 2001 has an afterword added, as Evans wished to answer the many vitriolic reviews that came out at the first publishing. I would highly recommend to get that one, as he adds to his analysis. The Notes and Further Reading sections are excellent as well.

An important read if there ever was one.

In Defence of History by Richard J. Evans
Granta Books, 2000
365 pages