November 13, 2011

Remembering the Civilian Cost of War

There is a raking light and a hint of frost in the air. Nobody has bothered to rake the leaves among the grave stones. The moss growing over the footpaths suggests desertion, a return to nature. A few early twentieth-century mausoleum facades stick out here and there among the hoary branches, fraktur engravings signalling a sense of self-importance that died with Weimar. One or two of the living are titivating, laying a winter rose for their family stone with cursive script. Death here is well organised. At the entrance to the graveyard is a florist. Directly across the street, a grave stone merchant. Adjacent to that, a large old-people’s home.

In the middle of this large suburban graveyard, a row of diminutive stone blocks hides among the fallen leaves. Nothing about them invites you to investigate. They are black, unadorned, inconspicuous: ignorable. But if you kick away the autumnal detritus you will discover that each stone bears the same date: April or May 1945. These people, mainly civilians, some of them without names, all perished during the fall of Berlin. Perhaps they met with disease, starvation, or a stray bullet. Who knows what privations they endured before the terminal date?

Remembrance Sunday in Berlin simply isn’t. Despite all of the recent moves to make the annual marking of the armistice about the general cost of war, the triumphalism of the victors still casts a pall. In any war, innocence is a grey area. People are caught up, swept along, killed, maimed, forgotten. Whatever their stories, the why of their deaths is filled with a futility that ought to move us. Wars, we expect, have a military cost. But among the celebrated fallen and the vanquished enemy lie the rest. I, for one, would like to remember them.

November 09, 2011

On Charisma

A charismatic figure possesses above all power. For sorcerers, the power consists in their supposed ability to control nature or humans. The modern scientist as a “wizard” in popular culture disposes over traces of this charisma. Other figures, such as athletes and actors, display more nebulous sorts of charisma. But in general, a person exudes charisma because he or she succeeds as a leader, a hero or Führer, in religious, martial, or other arts. Charisma thus emerges from and inheres in a social relation. A group of people ascribes certain extraordinary abilities or powers to a person. That person has charisma in relation to the ascribing group, whose members become active or passive disciples or followers or fans (William Clark, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, Chicago, 2006).
In the world of easy ‘likes’, Twitter armies, and the blogosphere, I rather feel that there is a surfeit of charisma kicking about the internet. There are enough scary nouns in Clark’s little charismatic reduction to make us most wary of it. The concatenation, Joe Public is a monster is a leader, is terrible, and the ethereal world makes it plausible. How many trolls have a few thousand followers or fans, more or less active? Vigilance, more than ever, is required. If charisma is to be so democratic, all the more reason to advocate goodness, virtue, manliness.

Onward, charismatically.

November 08, 2011

Edward Hyde is Everyman

I recently read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and knew that in its pages there was something of value for Beingmanly. But the moral was lost in the chimera, and in my closeness to the text I could not unravel it. I therefore sent a letter to an historian friend of mine, who thinks about these things, and occasionally has a sensible word to say on such matters. With his permission I submit to you his reply, unedited, and with his wish to state the opening proviso in full:
My dear VB,

Your letter finds me between one article and another, and thinking about things far removed from the subject you present. In answering you I must confess that I have had a drink or two, and am in a somewhat altered state. But often the way to divining one’s real thoughts on a matter come in such moments, and since I do not have time to give serious thought to the matter you will have to make do with this.

The chemically induced alter ego of Dr. Jekyll is far too well known for me to shed any further light on Stevenson’s exemplary novella. I’m sure you of all people aren’t too lazy to look after this yourself. But since you crave something useful for your odd little blog, I might say that the Strange Case could well illuminate our own lives to a degree uncomfortable to admit. Taking away the extraordinary excesses of Mr. Hyde, we are left with the statement of Dr. Jekyll that lends the story verisimilitude. For in this statement, civilised men will recognise themselves:
And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life.
I will not dwell on Freud. Lord knows, enough people have done that. Nevertheless, here we have a description of the internal schism, of propriety and gratification, that blights the lives of men. We measure other men by their adherence to the former, and by the degree to which they fall from this standard. Moreover, men measure themselves in this way, wreaking guilt, anxiety, shame, and so forth, upon themselves.

Our contemporary American Macho type of man, about which you have written, and which is represented, needless to say, across the civilised world, overcomes this schism by simply paying no heed to the marks of civilisation that have, in a roundabout way, produced him. On the contrary, he listens only to the democratic culture – in the Platonic sense – that has fostered his freedom to be licentious, promiscuous, ill-tempered, ill-spoken, and indulgent. The specific manner of this man depends largely upon his access to money, but the differences are of degree rather than of kind. Striking out for himself, he is not gnawed by guilt or anxiety. He is not riven by an internal schism. No, he is already fully realised as civilisation’s Edward Hyde, devoid of conscience, on the make, leaving no avenue of gratification unexplored.

This is one solution to the shackles of propriety. If everyone ignores the restraints we may merrily go the way of the beast. For some, life will be a cruel victimhood. For others it will be nasty, brutish and short. And for yet others it will be an epicurean delight. Let the dice fall as they may.

I would humbly submit that we are not all fighting, internally, against propriety. We shall only be faced with an eternal demon if we give credence to the duality within us. I doubt not that men’s passions overflow on occasion, but this is not our internal other, beating down our public face. We are one, whole, complicated certainly, but ultimately intelligible. Propriety need not be the external force from which we are alienated, but the embraced standard by which men can live. Like the man who tells a lie so often he comes to believe it, propriety can be truly felt. A man must give himself to civilisation, not secretly fight it. He will then find his gratification through his propriety. His desires and his standards will fall into line. He will shake off this Victorian curse and live, contentedly, among the civilised.

Such is the limit of what I can presently communicate on the subject. The whiskey bottle has scarcely enough in it to merit leaving for another occasion, so I will adjourn with it and return to serious thinking. Trusting you will not embarrass me, I shall remain

Your humble servant,

P.S. There is such a thing as too much tweed, you know. You’re at risk of becoming a bore, if not a boor.

November 07, 2011

Timothy Everest Online

I’m willing to bet that a fair portion of you will be putting hints in the way of your respective better halves about things you are craving for Christmas. Now that Timothy Everest has an online store, you will have something concrete to tell them about. I am the proud wearer of the Spitalfields tie you see here, and can attest to its quality and all around spiffiness. To be sure, I can think of things I’d rather take out of stockings, but in the realm of common decency this is as good as it gets. Happy shopping.

November 05, 2011

Remember, Remember; or, Forget Completely

Across England there will be conflagrations. Accident & Emergency centres will be on standby for their busiest night of the year, waiting for one idiotic teenager after another to explode through the doors with firework related injuries. Effigies of England’s most notorious Catholic will be burnt without a second thought, while delighted nippers will get sick on bonfire toffee and toffee apples. What fun!

For my American readers, which accounts for most of you, tonight is Guy Fawkes night, or if you prefer the euphemism, Bonfire Night. It’s a tradition that’s been suffering in recent years because of the rise of the infinitely more commercial Hallowe’en, which is an abomination of a festival in the eyes of this author. The proximity of the two events rather tires the public, who traditionally gave a ‘penny for the Guy’ (more on that below), but who are now held to ransom on their doorsteps a few days earlier by adolescents threatening to vandalise their property unless some money changes hands. Such is ‘trick or treat’ in England.

My childhood reminiscences about Guy Fawkes night are in the mode of innocence. Building a bonfire, watching the fireworks, making and then burning the Guy – it was all such a terrific wonder. The great taboo – fire – was once annually the licensed preoccupation of school children. It was an excitement akin only to Christmas morning. And it came with a song, which everybody knew and repeated, lest we should forget:

Remember, remember the 5th of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

And so we sang it, having not much of a clue why we were supposed to remember it. Sometime in the 1980s, the health and safety brigade made the ‘remember, remember’ motto into a cautionary tale about ‘The Firework Code’, with pictures of little Johnny’s burnt hand, and the girl who had a firework go off in her face. I’m pretty sure that this put the very idea into the heads of many a scoundrel.

Round the neighbourhood we would go, dragging a lumpy representation of Guy Fawkes, the manufacturing costs of which were to be met by the village folk. The burning of this effigy was to honour the real burning of Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in a Catholic plot to get rid of King James I. We vaguely knew this. We also vaguely knew that Fawkes had been caught in the act, tortured until he confessed, taken to the gallows, from which he jumped and broke his own neck. He was then drawn and quartered, and finally chucked on a great pyre as an example to any other Catholics with big ideas (there is some confusion about this last part). Somehow or other, it became a legendary victory for democracy.

The Conspirators
So, in short, a religious extremist took umbrage with the status quo and, in a desperate act of terrorism, tried to assassinate the representatives of government. That government, terrified and reactionary, used torture, killing, and rites of public humiliation to assert its authority. The public, raised to fever pitch with hatred and intolerance, smacked their bloodthirsty chops and carried out representative acts of torture and burning, so as to make their allegiances clear.

Oddly enough, it’s always been told as a story of just punishment for treason. In 1605, doubtless it was.

Any of this sound vaguely familiar? Funny, because while we’re all busy ‘remembering’ we seem to have forgotten completely.

Tonight I’ll be introducing the tradition to some Germans in a little village near Potsdam. There will be children, eyes sparkling at tales of historic gore, who will be instructed to remember. But as a good historian, my exhortation will have more to do with what seems to have become the moral of this story: what goes around comes around. Be vigilant.

November 03, 2011

Pole Dancing

Well, not really dancing. His Excellency, Dr. Marek Prawda, mark the truth, simply tapped his foot. The Polish Ambassador to Germany sat next to Joachim Sauer, the quantum chemist better known for being the husband of Angela Merkel. It was good to know that while the cat was tearing her hair out in Cannes, the mouse was out to play. It gives a sense of normalcy to all the talk of crisis. Sort of like the band playing on while the Titanic went down.

The event, part of a broad programme to mark Poland’s presidency of the EU – something between a poisoned chalice and an empty cup – was a performance by the ‘I, Culture’ Orchestra, made up of bright young things from Poland, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, at the Berlin Philharmoniker. Conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, they fairly charged through Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor. Apart from one stripling who appeared, from the way she was coughing into the back of her viola, to have a sharp case of tuberculosis, it was a wholesome affair that gave one a mite of hope that young people might actually turn into fairly decent old people. Indeed, if I hadn’t seen them all smoking outside the stage door afterwards, looking cowed and ill-postured, I would have called them an elegant lot.

Sir Neville, who is ageing gracefully
There was one moment of extraordinary drama. After Arabella Steinbacher had finished chopping into Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1, the chamber emptied for the obligatory interval. Toward the end of this hiatus, before the audience had re-assembled, fully ready to clap in all the wrong places, a hero appeared. Tall, broad-shouldered, with long, dark hair, this gallant fellow appeared on stage clutching a ball-gown clad young bassoonist. The fragile blond, with head thrown back and bosom heaving, completed a picture fit for a Mills & Boon cover. He carried her, over-the-threshold style, across the stage, her broken foot discreetly concealed, before gently lowering her into her seat. She then sat and waited for the rest of the orchestra, for what must have seemed like an age, embarrassed in the manner peculiar to pretty teenagers, but with the scattered audience who had stayed for the break now firmly in her corner.

The performance was rousing; Marriner was respectively exhaustive, exhausting, exhausted. Occasionally someone took the opportunity to shake hands with the dignitaries. I even saw a man click his heels and bow. This venue never ceases to surprise in its anthropological delights.
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