John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS
Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation, is the author, most recently,
of When the Kissing Had to Stop: Cult Studs, Khmer Newts, Langley Spooks,
Techno-Geeks, Video Drones, Author Gods, Serial Killers, Vampire Media, Alien
Sperm-Suckers, Satanic Therapists, and Those of Us Who Hold a Left-Wing
Grudge in the Post Toasties New World Hip-Hop (The New Press 1999),
He has been editor of the New York Times Book Review and literary co-editor
of The Nation. Other recent titles include The Last Innocent White Man (The
New Press, 1993) and Smoke and Mirrors (The New Press, 1997).
He jumped, of course. But also
he was pushed. And when Primo Levi, on "a sudden violent impulse,"
threw himself down three flights of stairwell in the Art Nouveau
apartment house on the Corso Re Umberto in Turin--where, except for
twenty months in World War II as "a dead man on vacation," he had lived his entire life--he killed something else besides a
67-year-old chemist, writer and witness (Auschwitz #174517). For lack
of a better way to characterize our complicated investment in
everything he stood for, let's just say that on April 11, 1987, he
killed our wishful thinking.
I am about to blame Franz
Kafka. This is spurious, even hysterical. But why let the Nazis have
the last word? From Myriam Anissimov's anguishing biography Primo
Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist and a quarter-century of remarkable
interviews assembled in The Voice of Memory, I want to cobble
up some options.
We could blame instead a Corso Re Umberto
family atmosphere that Anissimov describes as "both protective and
repressive," with Levi, "the prisoner in Turin," trapped in servitude
to a 91-year-old mother ("paralyzed, tyrannical and senile") and a
95-year-old mother-in-law (blind, requiring twenty-four-hour care).
Plus which, he'd stopped taking antidepressants because of prostate
surgery, he was so immobilized by fear of memory loss that he spent
whole days playing chess with his computer, and his adult children,
the botanist Lisa and the physicist Renzo, "turned pale and burst
into tears" whenever he tried to talk about the death camps, wouldn't
admit to reading his books and had always wanted a "normal"
We could blame as well the Holocaust deniers, who
had made a well-publicized comeback in the mid-1980s. Or Ronald
Reagan, who had recently gone to Bitburg to honor the SS dead. Or
Commentary magazine, which had published, in October 1985, a
shameful essay accusing Levi not only of "denatured pseudo-scientific
prose" and "a tin ear for religion," but also of opportunism. Or Jean
Améry, the Austrian philosopher who had likewise survived
Auschwitz, also wrote about it and, before killing himself, called
Levi "the forgiver." Or even Italo Calvino, who on that fateful April
Saturday was already two years dead, which meant that instead of
telephoning his old friend for help, Levi phoned instead the chief
rabbi of Rome, who neglected to tell anybody until ten years later.
What the writer said to the rabbi was: "I don't know how to go on. I
can't stand this life any longer. My mother has cancer, and each time
I look at her face I remember the faces of the men lying dead on the
planks of the bunks in Auschwitz."
Anyway, he lost his
balance. And balance was what we needed from him, along with what H.
Stuart Hughes called his "equanimity" and Irving Howe his "moral
poise." Against the odds and the century, we relied on his integrity
and even his charm--the Pan-like exuberance Philip Roth notes in an
interview in The Voice of Memory, like "some little
quicksilver woodland creature empowered by the forest's most astute
intelligence." Every word he ever wrote, in a prose as purely
Mediterranean as the best Greek poets, opposed the fascist "world of
shame," as if the bankrupt moral economy it left behind demanded all
our goods and services to square the account, a humanity
"commensurate" to the horror. "Commensurate" was a favorite word of
his. So was "counterweight." And so was "proportion." He was troubled
in The Drowned and the Saved (1986) by the idea that his
testimony "could by itself gain for me the privilege of surviving....
I cannot see any proportion between the privilege and its
Elsewhere in those final essays, through which we
scuttle for clues to his secession, the anthropologist, linguist and
camera-eye of the Holocaust worried that "reason, art and poetry are
no help in deciphering" a place where they are banned. He quoted
Améry, his accuser, to agree with him: "Anyone who has been
tortured remains tortured.... Anyone who has suffered torture never
again will be able to be at ease in the world." But he refused a
label of "forgiver": "I demand justice, but I am not able,
personally, to trade punches or return blows." He sought redress in
law: "I know how badly these mechanisms function, but I am the way I
was made." (As The Periodic Table put it: "I am not the Count
of Montecristo.") And he disdained "confusions, small-change
Freudianism, morbidities, or indulgences. The oppressor remains what
he is, and so does the victim. They are not interchangeable. The
former is to be punished and execrated (but, if possible,
understood), the latter is to be pitied and helped; but both, faced
by the indecency of the irrevocable act, need refuge and protection,
and instinctively search for them. Not all, but most--and often for
their entire lives."
And he also thought about suicide--"an
act of man and not of the animal," "a mediated act, a noninstinctive,
unnatural choice." While the "enslaved animals" in the Lager
(camp) sometimes let themselves die, they did not
choose to: "Svevo's remark in The Confessions of
Zeno...has the rawness of truth: 'When one is dying, one is much
too busy to think about death. All one's organism is devoted to
breathing.'" Suicide, he said, "is born from a feeling of guilt that
no punishment has attenuated." But in the camps "the harshness of
imprisonment was perceived as punishment, and the feeling of guilt
(if there is punishment, there must have been guilt) was relegated to
the background, only to reemerge after the Liberation." What
guilt? That "we had not done anything, or not enough.... And this is
a judgment that the survivor believes he sees in the eyes of those
(especially the young) who listen to his stories and judge with
facile hindsight, or who perhaps feel cruelly repelled." Leading to
the worst of introspections:
I might be alive in the place
of another, at the expense of another; I might have usurped, that is,
in fact, killed. The "saved" of the Lager were not the best, those
predestined to do good, the bearers of a message: what I had seen and
lived through proved the exact contrary. Preferably the worst
survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the
collaborators of the "gray zone," the spies.... I felt innocent, yes,
but enrolled among the saved and therefore in permanent search of a
justification in my own eyes and those of others. The worst survived,
that is, the fittest; the best all died.
Which brings us
back, like a black boomerang, to Kafka.
Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K....
It's a pathogenic book. Like an onion, one
layer after another. Each of us could be tried and condemned and
executed, without ever knowing why. It was as if it predicted the
time when it was a crime simply to be a Jew.
to Germaine Greer)
In the summer of 1982, a publisher
asked Levi to translate The Trial, as Calvino and Natalia
Ginzburg had been asked to translate Lord Jim and Madame
Bovary. For his mother, he needed the money. While he would have
preferred Joseph Conrad or Thomas Mann, he sounded at the time almost
cheerful about the project:
I like and admire Kafka because
he writes in a manner that is totally foreign to me. In my writings,
for better or worse, knowingly or unknowingly, I have always made an
effort to move from dark to clear, like a filtration pump that sucks
in cloudy water and expels it clarified, if not sterile. Kafka takes
an opposite path; he pours out an endless stream of the
hallucinations dredged up from levels unbelievably deep, and never
filters them. The reader feels them swarming with seeds and spores:
they are burning with meaning, but he is never helped to tear down or
bypass the veil, so as to see things in the place where they are
hidden. Kafka never touches ground, he never deigns to offer you the
clue to the maze.
His tune would soon change. In a 1983
interview, this dutiful child of the Enlightenment conceded that
Kafka had a gift "that went beyond everyday reason...an almost
animalesque sensitivity, like snakes that know when earthquakes are
coming." But Levi also wondered "if it is a good idea to give a book
like this to a fifteen-year-old.... Now this ending is so cruel, so
unexpectedly cruel, that if I had a young child I would spare him. I
fear it would disturb him, make him suffer, although of course it is
the truth. We will die, each of us will die, more or less like that."
This is odd enough from a writer whose feelings had been hurt when
his own children declined to discuss his books. But, he confessed,
"the undertaking disturbed me badly. I went into a deep, deep
depression." And: "I felt assaulted by this book." Disappearing into
Joseph K., "I accused myself, as he did."
well-known for his impatience with long-winded, solipsistic or
obscurantist prose. (About Beckett: "It is the duty of every human
being to communicate." About Pound: "writing in Chinese simply showed
a disrespect for the reader." Borges he found "alien and distant,"
Proust "boring" and Dostoyevsky "rebarbative" and "portentous.") But
this was different. Kafka got to him so much that he resolved never
to read him again: "I feel a repulsion that is clearly of a
How so? Let's look at that strange
unfinished novel, written shortly after Franz broke off his
engagement to Félice, under the influence of Søren
Kierkegaard and the "rebarbative" author of Crime and
Punishment, with its attic offices and courts of impeachment, its
brittle beards and colored badges, its "ostensible acquittals" and
"indefinite postponements," its hopelessness, sinfulness and
sinister-enigmatic tropes: "It did not follow that the case was lost,
by no means, at least there was no decisive evidence for such an
assumption; you simply knew nothing more about the case and would
never know anything more about it."
Imagine a Primo Levi
meditating on, for instance, this creepy middle
One must lie low, no matter how much it went
against the grain, and try to understand that this great organization
remained, so to speak, in a state of delicate balance, and that if
someone took it upon himself to alter the disposition of things
around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to
destruction, while the organization would simply right itself by some
compensating reaction in another part of its machinery--since
everything is interlocked--and remain unchanged, unless, indeed,
which was very probable, it became still more rigid, more vigilant,
severer, and more ruthless.
Or, at the end of the novel, this impasse:
Were there arguments in his favor that had
been overlooked? Of course there must be. Logic is doubtless
unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living.
Where was the Judge whom he had never seen? Where was the High Court,
to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out
all his fingers.
Easy enough to say that the survivor read
himself into such paranoid cloud shapes, where guilt was nameless,
justice faceless, space liquid, time centrifugal, God absent and Law
a myth--because everybody does. We all feel something ominous and
devouring about corporations and bureaucracies, about banking and
religion, even about Prague, that baroque estrangement. But a
sentence like this one had to seem personal: "Only our concept of
time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgment by that
name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session." And
still more chilling: "The hunting dogs are playing in the courtyard,
but the hare will not escape them, no matter how fast it may be
flying already through the woods."
Moreover, Franz K.'s
Joseph K. is devoured as well by sexuality--by Elsa, the cabaret
waitress, who receives visitors in bed; by Leni, the lawyer's
servant, who only sleeps with men who have been accused; by
Fräulein Bürstner and the usher's wife; by the half-naked
mothers nursing babies in the Lower Court, the prostitute maids and
prostitute custodians, and the little girls who molest him in the
painter Titorelli's garret, behind the red door--never even mind the
mother he hasn't seen for three years. Maybe that butcher's knife
wasn't intended, after all, for his self-interrogating
Well, Kafka: He was all about failure. Everything
was incomprehensible, nothing could be known, and there were no happy
endings. (His three sisters all died in the camps.) Kafka told us:
"Balzac carried a cane on which was carved the legend: I smash every
obstacle; my legend reads: Every obstacle smashes me." And about this
Kafka, Levi, "a puritanical introvert," was crystal clear: "I fear
him, like a great machine that crashes in on you, like the prophet
who tells you the day you will die."
If there is an
Auschwitz, then there cannot be a God.
For the most part the Levi we meet in The Voice of
Memory is the man in his books: "I'm Italian, but I'm also
Jewish. It's like having a spare wheel, or an extra gear." He is also
an "amphibian, a centaur," split in two--on the one hand, the chemist
and technician; on the other, the writer who gives interviews. That
he survived, unlike 647 of the 650 Italians who accompanied him to
Poland, he attributes again to "sheer luck," "sound instinct,"
"unsuspected stamina," "knowing German" and "professional
background." (Believing in God, which he didn't, and bearing witness,
as he would, were irrelevant. He had happened to be a chemist in a
concentration camp that was also an I.G. Farben synthetic rubber
factory.) That he should have passed through the dark of Survival
in Auschwitz to the light of The Reawakening seems a
miracle. That he should have married, fathered, worked in a paint
shop, made radio programs, won literary prizes--"Paradoxically, my
baggage of atrocious memories became a wealth, a seed; it seemed to
me that, by writing, I was growing like a plant"--and lectured
schoolchildren in the same "calm and reasonable tone" is practically
In the Roth interview, we see him in his
study, in the room where he was born, with the flowered sofa, easy
chair, word processor, color-coded notebooks, a big wire butterfly, a
little wire bug and an owl. In the pages that follow, as if from Dr.
Gottlieb in The Reawakening, "intelligence and cunning
emanated from him like energy from radium, with the same silent and
penetrating continuity." Or so we want to believe. He repeats,
rethinks, amends, clarifies. We hear again about spoons and shoes;
the "healing" in his first book and the "joy" of his second. About
socialism and Sophie's Choice. About Rabelais, Dante and
Ariosto. About solidarity in the camps (none) and resistance
(futile). About James Joyce (whom he likes) and Bruno Bettelheim
(whom he doesn't). He describes his chemical work ("at war with the
obtuse and malign inertia of matter"), his responsibilities as a
writer ("All we can ask of those who create is that they should be
neither servile nor false") and what he reads in his spare time ("I
prefer to stick to the tried and tested, to make a hole and then
nibble away at it, perhaps for an entire lifetime, like woodworms
when they find a piece of wood to their taste").
who we want him to be. It argues that perhaps something of the best
of us, skeptical, ironic and aware, could outlive the worst. Like a
Nobel Prize acceptance speech, it answers our secular-humanist need
for a secular-humanist grace, a darting and undaunted intelligence
capable of suggesting in 1980 that "Auschwitz may be the
punishment...of barbarian Germany, of the barbarian Nazis, against
Jewish civilization--that is to say, the punishment for daring, just
as the shipwreck of Ulysses is the punishment of a barbarian god for
human daring. I was thinking of that vein of German anti-Semitism
that struck chiefly at the intellectual daring of the Jews, such as
Freud, Marx, and all the innovators, in every field. It was that
daring that irked a certain German philistinism much more than
the fact of blood or race."
So if, in The Reawakening, he asked us to look at a Chagall-like scene in
Zhmerinka ("The walls of one of the station latrines were plastered
with German banknotes, meticulously stuck there with excrement"), we
also saw the Russians dancing, the Gypsy orchestra at Slutsk and the
train with a piano car. And if, in The Periodic Table, he
recalls "the vilification of the prayer shawl," turned into underwear
for Lager Jews, he also explains the political chemistry of
Jewishness: "In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived,
impurities are needed...in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be
fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are
needed.... I am the impurity that makes the zinc react, I am the
grain of salt or mustard." And if, in The Monkey's Wrench, he
had to tell us about the German engineer who went to Bombay's Towers
of Silence and informed the Parsees "how German technicians had
designed a grille to be placed at the bottom of the towers: a grille
of electric resistors that would burn the dead body...without flames,
without smell, and without contaminating anything," he also told us
what it tastes like to drink a glacier's melting snow: "I couldn't
explain it to you, because you know how hard it is to explain tastes
and smells, except with examples, like if you say the smell of garlic
or the taste of salami. But I would actually say that water tasted
like sky, and, in fact, it came straight down from the
But by the time he got to The Drowned and the
Saved, the year before he died, it was as if the dogs ate the
hare. It tore him apart to consider the pathos, ambiguities and
collaborations of the "gray zone" in the camps, the "filtered
memories" of victims and the survival strategies of even the bravest:
"I come first, second, and third. Then nothing, then again I; and
then all the others." This calm man was suddenly furious: "We
survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we
are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did
not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have
not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are the
'muslims,' the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose
deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule, we
are the exception." He seemed almost to relish the sleazy story of
Chaim Rumkowski, "king of the Jews" of Lodz, who collaborated himself
all the way to the gas chamber:
Like Rumkowksi, we too are
so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential
fragility.... Forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the
ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of
death, and that close by the train is waiting.
change of heart, or perhaps a buried shadow, there are passing hints
in The Voice of Memory: "My defect is lack of courage, fear
for myself and for others." And: "I'm not very balanced at all. I go
through long periods of imbalance.... I find it very hard to cope
with problems. This side of myself I've never written about"--except
perhaps in his angry, oblique poems, "suffused with auras and
shadows." But: "I am incapable of analyzing myself. My work is
nocturnal, often carried out unconsciously." Was it possible, he was
asked, to destroy the humanity in man? "Yes, I'm afraid
In Anissimov's biography, however, the shadows hound
us from the start. She's done all the busy work; read the report
cards; buried the engineer father in 1942; tracked down the real
Alberto; explained, on the one wing, Cesare Pavese, Benedetto Croce
and Antonio Gramsci and, on the other, the sinister clowns of Italian
Futurism and Italian Fascism; looked at the racial laws, the Chemical
Institute and the asbestos mine; gone into the beast's belly with all
the rage that Levi suppressed (the vertical stripes and brass bands,
the Jewish women in the camp orchestra wearing blue hats with polka
dots while they play Vienna waltzes, the children burned alive to
economize on hydrogen cyanide, tobacco pouches made from tanned
scrotums); the engagement to Lucia Morpurgo ("Levi was infinitely
grateful to Lucia for having consented to love him--an ex-deportee, a
shy and repressed young man"); the suicide of Pavese, after all his
friends had left town for the summer; the cigarettes (mentholated);
the literary life (smarmy); the Red Brigades (appalling); Israel (get
out of Lebanon, get rid of Sharon); Saul Bellow's famous-making
praise for The Periodic Table; mother, witness, mother,
But all along--from a childhood fear of
spiders dating back to his first glimpse of Doré's sketch of
Arachne in Canto XII of Dante's Purgatorio, to a pubescent
belief in what he was told by his Christian classmates about
circumcision and castration, to his peculiar detestation of rabbits
("like certain human beings, they had nothing in their heads but food
and sex") that had somehow extended to the girls around him, none of
whom he could bring himself to touch, to the tormenting "dream within
a dream" that came to him even after he was married ("I am alone in
the center of a grey and turbid nothing, and now, I know what
this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it; I am
in the Lager once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All
the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my
family, nature in flower, my home"), to the obscene absurdity of
receiving a signed copy of the Spandau diaries of Albert Speer, who
claimed to be reading Levi, which could account for a renewed fever
of the poetry-writing he called an "illness" ("dark and morbid
themes," "violent feelings of rage," chimneys, shadows) and another
downward spiral into depression, which is where he met Joseph K.--all
along, it seems, he may have been as buggy and neurotic as Kafka
himself, with more reason and less crawl space.
In his last
letter to Ruth Feldman, the American translator of his poetry, two
months before he died, he told her that "the period he was living
through was worse than Auschwitz, because he was no longer young and
no longer had the ability to react, and take a grip on himself." His
last essay, published two weeks after the stairwell, was called "The
Fear of Spiders":
Their hairiness is supposed to have a
sexual significance, and the repulsion we feel supposedly reveals our
unconscious rejection of sex: this is how we express it and at the
same time this is how we try to free ourselves of it.... The spider
is the enemy-mother who envelops and encompasses, who wants to make
us re-enter the womb from which we have issued, bind us tightly to
take us back to the impotence of infancy, subject us again to her
Like a great machine that crashes in on you...
I would have reformulated Adorno's remark like
this: After Auschwitz, there can be no more poetry, except about
It is not
necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as
Cynthia Ozick reviewed The Drowned and the
Saved as if it were a suicide note. He had at last let loose his
rage. She was proud of him for finally giving in to hate. So what if
it cost him his life? She only wished that all his books "had been as
vehement." And there's the ugly rub. In order to approve of his
farewell testament she needed somehow to trash everything else he'd
written. Ladling on such inverted comma words and phrases as "curious
peacefulness," "famous 'detachment,'" "so transparent, so untainted,"
"pure spirit," "vessel of clear water," "well-mannered cicerone of
hell," "Darwin of the death camps," and (worst of all) purveyor of
"uplift," she actually seemed to sneer.
At the time I
thought Ozick's essay impudent and maybe even ulterior. Imagine
blaming a writer for his blurbs and a witness for his reasonableness.
Why not come right out and complain that he was a Sephardic Jew
instead of an Ashkenazi, an assimilated Italian instead of a
lacerated Pole, a socialist instead of a Zionist, a nonbeliever going
into the camps and a nonbeliever coming out, pro-Diaspora and
anti-Eretz Israel, who didn't even speak Yiddish?
older now, and ulterior on my own time. And while it still seems that
anyone unmoved to tears and scruple by a brilliant book like The
Reawakening has become sadly coarsened, somehow tone-deaf, I am
also aware of our desperate need to cling to whatever purchase we
think we have on the sudden edge and the bloody sleeve and the fiery
sign. Reading mirrors, we are horrified by what we see. We abduct and
torment our heroes of consciousness as if we were Giacomettis
torturing metals and ideas.
"We hate in itself our masters' insane dream of greatness, and their contempt for God and men, and for ourselves, as men," wrote Levi. And: "It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as
National Socialism was, sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it
degrades them, it makes them similar to itself, and this all the more
when they are available, blank, and lack a political or moral
armature." Where to find such armature? To this bonfire, he can't be
said to have brought a sword: "We must be democrats first, and Jews
or Italians, or anything else, second." But that is who he was, and
it would kill him. "I tell you they are just like other people," he
said of the Sonderkommandos, "only a lot more
He had never wanted to be a writer, or an
intellectual, or a victim, or a witness. He had troubles of his own,
ordinary spiders, before he met Kafka in the gray zone. And now that
we know all about them, there still remains the mystery of his
transcendence. For a while, only for a while, but all the more
astonishing--water tasted like the sky.
They laughed when I sat down with these two writers--and never mind that both books arrived in the same box. The bad gay boy and the cold war saint! The apostle of derangement and the lexicographer of Newspeak! The red cape and the tweed jacket, the rotting knee and the lousy lung, the drunken boat and the memory hole! "I came to find my mind's disorder sacred," said the poet on a camel. "Good prose is like a window pane," said the novelist who shot elephants.
But both Arthur Rimbaud and George Orwell did go down-and-out in Paris and London. Both their fathers were mostly absent, doing time as globocops in Third World tropics of the French and British empires. (On a sand dune, Captain Rimbaud taught himself Bedouin ways, the better to repress them. Orwell's dad was a deputy opium agent, making sure the poppy juice got from India to the Chinese addicts.) Both their mothers loved cards more than kids. Both sons, hating school, gifted at languages, hostile to religion, intrigued by popular culture, would follow their fathers to the colonies, enlist in foreign wars, lose not only their tempers but also amazing amounts of manuscript and die younger than they should have, after dreaming up and acting out alternative identities. (Take a hike, Eric Blair: "I is somebody else.")
Both live on as cautionary tales, litmus tests, celebrity role models and undead icons. In his wickedly entertaining revised version of Rimbaud, Graham Robb points to his posthumous career "as Symbolist, Surrealist, Beat poet, student revolutionary, rock lyricist, gay pioneer and inspired drug-user," as well as "an emergency exit from the house of convention" for avant-gardes everywhere. Well-thumbed copies of A Season in Hell and The Illuminations are to be found in the portmanteaus of Picasso, Breton, Cocteau and Malraux and in the backpacks of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Bruce Chatwin and Kurt Cobain. Jim Morrison, that swinging Door, is even rumored "to have faked his death in Paris and followed Rimbaud to Ethiopia"--just the right splash of mythic Tabasco.
Whereas Orwell's name is mentioned every time we are looked down upon by surveillance cameras, lied to by governments, read about journalists who have been "disappeared" or hear about dissidents in mental hospitals. Big Brother is a member of our extended family, the pigs go on drinking all the milk and eating all the apples, and the SLORC word for Burma in Newspeak is "Myanmar." In Democracy, her 1984 (!) novel of skulduggery on the Pacific Rim, Joan Didion would notice that "all reporters had paperback copies of Homage to Catalonia, and kept them in the same place where they kept the matches and the candle and the notebook, for when the hotel was bombed." So postmodern is Curious George that he has even been abducted by such aliens as Norman Podhoretz.
And both for a season or so professed revolutionary socialism. Even if the moment passed like measles, Rimbaud was there for the Paris Commune, and Orwell was there for the Spanish Republic, and these, of course, are two of the biggest Super Bowl games in the left's long losing streak, and it makes you want to weep.
Robb reminds us that the massacre of the Communards in 1871 "was the bloodiest week in French history: a savage humiliation of the proletariat. Thousands were shot, inexpertly tortured or shipped to the penal colonies without a proper trial. Women carrying bottles in the street were bayoneted by soldiers who had heard of the mythical, bomb-throwing 'pétroleuses.' More people died during la Semaine Sanglante than in the Reign of Terror or the Franco-Prussian War." While the Rimbaud article in my Britannica omits any mention of the Commune, the young poet yo-yo'd in and out of all of it, and Robb suggests that he may have been raped by a gang of soldiers while trying to slip through the lines a couple of weeks before the slaughter, after which he wrote his famous Lettre du Voyant--announcing the poet as Romantic Lucifer and Promethean Satan, whose job it was to rescue man from God.
On the open wound of the Spanish Republic, Jeffrey Meyers quotes Albert Camus: "It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so many men, the world over, regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy." Certainly it was personal for Orwell. On his first Barcelona stop, he found a socialist community "where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no bootlicking," and dining rooms in the luxury hotels had been turned into canteens for the militia. But his second time around, he saw fat men eating quails while children begged for bread, and the commissars were hunting down his anarchist friends like deer. And then he took a bullet in the throat.
Anyway, both of them were lonely guys: vagabonds and vanishing acts. And they somehow hang together, coincidental and corresponding, in a rainbow arc from the Cult of the Artist to the Writer on the Barricades to Joe DiMaggio for Mr. Coffee and Bob Dole for Viagra. In Democracy, Joan Didion also quotes Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."
It can only be the end of the world, ahead of time.
"The first poet of a civilization not yet born," as René Char called him, showed up on October 20, 1854, in Charleville in French Flanders, three years after Napoleon III's coup d'état. At age 4, already precocious, he tried to trade his baby sister for some colored prints in a bookshop window. At age 6, his father shipped off for Algeria and never came back, leaving Arthur at the mercy of a mother devoted to church, shopping and whist, with a "phenomenal capacity for not showing affection." At age 7, he entered the "corpse-yellow" rooms of the local lycée as if preparing "for a life in prison." By age 14, he had inhaled all of French poetry, won every academic prize and developed acute self-consciousness:
I have the bluish-white eyes of my ancestors the Gauls, their small brains, their clumsiness in battle. I find my dress as barbaric as theirs. But I do not butter my hair.
Picture him in the summer of 1870, chatting up navvies and quarrymen, reading Verlaine for the first time and stowing away under a seat on the train to Paris, where he will be arrested on suspicion of republicanism and/or spying for Bismarck, and spend maybe a week in prison, during which not even Robb can say for sure what happens to him, except lice. There followed, as if on an elastic string that kept snapping him back to "the Mouth of Darkness," as he called his disapproving mother, an itchy six-month period of itinerant journalism, cafe polemics, bohemian sonnets and shopping for surrogate fathers, during which he swore like a prisoner, ate like a pig, refused to pass the salt and came to believe that "the mind could be shaped by an act of will," that morality "is a weakness of the brain" and that Society "will fall to the axe, the pick and the steamroller."
In the cities, the mud suddenly appeared to me red and black, like a mirror when the lamp moves about in the next room, like a treasure in the forest! Good luck, I cried, and saw a sea of flames and smoke in the sky, and, to left and to right, all riches blazing like a billion thunders.
This is a kid ready for a Commune. He sells his watch for a third-class ticket to Paris in February 1871, and for two weeks walks the streets "feasting on theatre bills, advertisements, pamphlets and shop signs," sleeping on coal barges, competing with dogs for scraps of food--a "vagrant poet with a fish in his pants." Six days after he has hoofed it home, workers rise, generals are lynched and he has to go back again: "Paris had fallen to poets who worked with laws and human beings instead of words." A new chief of police removes "Saint" from every street name and issues a warrant for God's arrest. Maybe words actually do have "a direct, controllable influence on reality."
"Order is vanquished!" declares the 16-year-old, and writes his own revolutionary Constitution: A permanent state of referendum! Abolition of families and their "slave-holding" of children! Communication with animals, plants and extraterrestrials! He will return in late April, at the delirious height of the Commune, to enlist as a Left Bank guerrilla: "To whom shall I hire myself? What beast should I worship? What holy image are we attacking? Which hearts shall I break? What lie must I keep?--In what blood shall I walk?" When government troops bomb their own capital, he slips away, suffers what he suffers and enters the gaudy tent of his own legend: "I owe my superiority to the fact that I have no heart."
In fact, says Robb, he has decided "to seize control of the means of intellectual production.... In terms that were unavailable to him in 1871, he was considering the possibility of detaching the censorious superego from the endlessly imaginative id." And the "superego incarnate" is Mme. Rimbaud, from whom he's always hiding out in attics, cellars or latrines, and to whom he always returns, until Africa. You are saying this is reductive. But every once in a while, praxis so improves on theory that we get a penguin.
That summer of 1871 he posts a batch of poems to Verlaine so full of kinky innuendo that The Nasty Fellows raise a subscription to bring the prodigy to the capital and subsidize his genius. Rimbaud arrives with "a strange nostalgia for the future," one of the most remarkable poems in any language, "The Drunken Boat," and a plan to fold, bend, spindle and mutilate his own personality. Almost immediately, he will trash hotel rooms like a rock star and leave turds behind on pillows. Verlaine, of course, will fall in love with him, when he isn't rotting his brain with absinthe or setting his wife's hair on fire. Verlaine is easy to make fun of only if you've never been smitten by somebody bad for you, or until you are reminded that Pol Pot was one of his great admirers.
We are now in familiar territory, with the familiar contradictions. Rimbaud the vandal, hooligan, sadist and "murderous" prankster is also the Rimbaud who writes a lovely article about "human alarm-clocks" who for a small fee rush around in the early hours in the poorer sections of the city waking up factory workers. The "vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy" is also the author of the marvelous "Voyelles," a poem in which each vowel has its own color (noir, blanc, rouge, vert, bleu)--inspired by Ernest Cabaner, a composer who plays piano in a bar, collects old shoes to use as flowerpots and believes that each note of the octave corresponds to a particular color and vowel. According to Robb:
This is the ambiguity that lies at the heart of Rimbaud's work: the ardent search for powerful systems of thought that could be used like magic spells, conducted by an acutely ironic intelligence--a combination that rarely survives adolescence gracefully.
He loses a notebook, the Belgian poems and the manuscript of "Spiritual Hunt." Since he believes "every being...to be entitled to several other lives," why not go to England, live with Verlaine in Soho, grub sixpence from writing business letters and teaching French, admire the boys in tight-fitting suits waiting outside public urinals and read Shakespeare, Longfellow, Poe and Swinburne? Certainly, like all ex-Communards in jittery Europe, they are spied upon and hassled. So should they be. They hobnob with the socialist underground. They see Karl Marx. Robb even suggests that several of The Illuminations can be construed as glosses on Kapital--on "the alienated consumers of the modern metropolis, the disinherited masses, the resurrectionary mythology of the Commune and the magic wand of global capitalism."
Not so his astonishing A Season in Hell, in which Modernism rears its contrary head; in which experiments with language are investigations into the unstable self; in which, "like a particle accelerator," repellent forms of thought collide: Job and Goethe; fairy tales and Taine; Fleurs du Mal and "the Mouth of Darkness." "Rimbaud, at the age of 18, had invented a linguistic world that can be happily explored for years like the scrapyard of a civilization." After which, confoundingly, he abandoned literature, France, fame and Mme. Rimbaud.
Well, now: Brussels, Stuttgart, Milan, Siena. Enlisting in the Carlist rebel army, then absconding with the cash bonus. Enlisting in the Dutch Colonial Army, then deserting the minute he gets to Java. Trying to enlist in the US Navy, then having instead to run off to Scandinavia with a circus. Going over the Alps on foot, setting sail for Alexandria, learning Russian, Arabic and Hindi. Discovering at last that while no tree grows in Aden, there is a nearby Forbidden City unseen by Europeans since Richard Burton, and money to be made trading coffee, tobacco, incense, ivory, spices, spears, swords, ostrich eggs, animal skins and guns. He will wear a turban, keep a woman, chew khat, catch syphilis, ride camels, write mom, lose another manuscript (on Abyssinia) and then his right leg (to bone cancer). At the end, he refuses opium for fear of what he might say in his delirium to his sister.
Disregard previous rumors, even in Enid Starkie. He neither converted to Islam nor traded in slaves, though you couldn't do business in his part of Africa without cutting the warlords in on the deal. What he did do, by selling guns to Menelik, was help an African army defeat a European nation--well, at least Italy--for the first time. Disregard as well the Tragic Aura. He didn't die bitter and broke. He actually made a lot of money, which he hid from his mother in bank accounts all over the Middle East. Some people are still looking for it.
Some people are also still looking for the poet. Rimbaud killed him off when he stopped living with other people, after he realized that the world couldn't be changed by verbal innovation. Literature, Robb explains, hadn't worked:
For Rimbaud, poetry had always been the means to an end: winning esteem, causing irritation, changing the nature of reality. Each redefinition of the goal had rendered the old technology obsolete. The prose Rimbaud had shown no more nostalgia for verse than most mathematicians showed for their slide-rules after the invention of the personal computer.
It's hard to read this as anything other than a triumph of capitalism over Bohemia.
My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.
(Orwell, "Why I Write")
Orwell lasted ten years longer, but all of it was much less thrilling. And so, compared to Graham Robb, is Jeffrey Meyers. Whether, after two volumes by William Abrahams and Peter Stansky, one full-length bio by Bernard Crick, another by Michael Shelden, a short and elegant "Literary Life" by the editor of the twenty-volume Complete Works, Peter Davison, and a brilliant black valentine by Raymond Williams in the "Modern Masters" series, we even need another account is open to question. "'Father Knew George Orwell' is a cracked old song," wrote Williams almost three decades ago. But the centennial of his birth will be upon us in three short years, so batten down your aspidistra.
According to Meyers, he felt guilty about everything: "his colonial heritage, his bourgeois background, his inverted snobbery and his elite education," not to mention his behavior as a policeman in Burma, his inability to get himself arrested while he was collecting material for Down and Out and maybe even the uncircumcised penis that so mortified him at Eton among such contemporaries as Anthony Powell, Henry Green and Harold Acton. And so his whole life was a kind of penance, never taking care of himself, doing it all the hard way, always off to another dangerous front, ending up on an island off the coast of Scotland as far away from medical attention as an Englishman with tuberculosis could get. "All these risky moves were prompted by the inner need to sabotage his chance of a happy life," Meyers the schoolmarm tells us.
We've heard this before, from everybody else, and it still doesn't explain anything. How many boys went to Eton and not to Spain? How many writers went to Spain, like Hemingway, and failed to notice anything peculiar? How come Lawrence Durrell and Anthony Burgess never felt guilty about their colonial service or imperial privilege? Who else (who didn't have to) went down the Wigan mines, or into the casual wards of a public hospital to find out how the poor died, or saw a man hanged and decided on the spot, "When a murderer is hanged, there is only one person at the ceremony who is not guilty of murder"?
From Meyers, we also get a surprising amount of sex, all of it depressing. Orwell was nervous about women, apparently not much good in bed and would complain in his "Last Literary Notebook" about "their incorrigible dirtiness & untidiness" and "their terrible, devouring sexuality":
Within any marriage or regular love affair, he suspected that it was always the woman who was the sexually insistent partner. In his experience women were quite insatiable, & never seemed fatigued by no matter how much love-making.... In any marriage of more than a year or two's standing, intercourse was thought of as a duty, a service owed by the man to the woman. And he suspected that in every marriage the struggle was always the same--the man trying to escape from sexual intercourse, to do it only when he felt like it (or with other women), the woman demanding it more & more, & more & more consciously despising her husband for his lack of virility.
How does this square with his adventures in Rangoon brothels or among Parisian trollops and Berber girls in Marrakech? Was the former colonial cop and declassed intellectual only capable of getting it up with the lower orders? Raymond Williams was much exercised by this class angle in Orwell--an unconscious condescension, a double standard, a writing off of the brute masses because he'd come to feel all politics "was a mode of adjustment to one's own wishes and fantasies." Hadn't he, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, projected his own apathy on the oppressed proles by insisting that, "Under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me"?
But these are difficult thoughts, getting into what Williams called Orwell's "submerged despairs"--the "radical pessimism" and "accommodation to capitalism" of this self-described "shock-absorber of the bourgeoisie." Meyers will no more entertain them than he will explore the kind of craft questions that bring out the best in Peter Davison--on, for instance, how those magnificent essays about elephants, toads and Dickens got themselves written. Or the precise debt of Nineteen Eighty-Four to Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Jack London's Iron Heel and Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night. No mention in Meyers, either, of how the 1955 film version of Animal Farm omitted the last-scene melding of men and pigs, which might have opened questions about cultural expropriation, body-snatching and even Doublethink--all for the greater good of the cold war cause. In all Meyers's many pages, not a single sentence stops us in mid-platitude to say anything half as intellectually arresting as these several in Raymond Williams, on Orwell's recurring patterns:
This experience of awareness, rejection, and flight is repeatedly enacted. Yet it would be truer to say that most of Orwell's important writing is about someone who tries to get away but fails. That failure, that reabsorption, happens, in the end, in all the novels mentioned, though of course the experience of awareness, rejection, and flight has made its important mark.
To think these thoughts is then to ask whether, on a fundamental level, Nineteen Eighty-Four had much of anything to say to Chinese students or the Velvet Revolutionaries, who turned out to be made of sterner stuff than Winston Smith.
Instead, we get the same old stories: St. Cyprian's, with Cyril Connolly and Cecil Beaton; Eton and his unrequited crush on a younger boy; Burma, where he briefly imagined that the "the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts"; Paris, where he wrote and destroyed two novels; teaching boys, selling books, being rejected by T.S. Eliot, marrying Eileen; Spain, Morocco and the Blitz; the BBC, the adopted child and the dead Eileen; P.G. Wodehouse, Edmund Wilson, Animal Farm and the audition of the widows in waiting--after which egregious Sonia, the widow everybody loves to hate, who is said here to have spat in disgust whenever she passed a nun on the street.
And along with the famous decency, the equally famous abuse: W.H. Auden was "a sort of gutless Kipling." William Morris, Bernard Shaw and Upton Sinclair were "dull, empty windbags." Off with the heads of "the creepy eunuchs in pansy-left circles" and "all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearing and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat." Wouldn't it be loverly "if only the sandals and the pistachio-colored shirts could be put in a pile and burnt and every vegetarian, teetotaler and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!"
Wilfrid Sheed once said that Orwell wrote best about the things he hated. So maybe we're just lucky that some of the things he hated were more important than sandals and vegetarianism.
But for now, it's the night before. Let us receive all influxes of vigor and real tenderness. And at dawn, armed with ardent patience, we shall enter the splendid cities.
(Rimbaud, A Season in Hell)
I am reminded of Simone Weil, who also negated herself, who willed herself out of this world. At her funeral, the priest arrived too late, because of a stalled train. At Rimbaud's funeral, nobody came, because his mother kept it secret. Orwell is remembered on the one hand, by Malcolm Muggeridge, as having "loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future," and on the other by H.G. Wells, as "a Trotskyist with big feet." And George himself told us that "saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent."
So Rimbaud gave up poetry when it failed to change the world. Orwell at the end must have had his doubts about language, too, or he wouldn't have dreamed up Newspeak. Neither is remembered for his hard work at identity-making. Instead, the poet's name is worn by freaks, geeks and videodrones as if it were a logo on a T-shirt or a jet-propelled sneaker, and the novelist is propped up on a horse like the dead El Cid to frighten the Moorish hordes. They have both been turned into the standard-issue celebrity flacks of this empty, buzzing time, selling something other than themselves, unattached to honor, glory, kingship, sainthood or genius. They join a talk-show parade of the power-mad, the filthy rich and the serial killers, the softboiled fifteen-minute Warhol eggs, the rock musicians addled on cobra venom, the war criminals whose mothers never loved them and the starlets babbling on about their substance abuse, their child molestations, their anorexia and their liposuction. "I have never belonged to this race," said Rimbaud.
This article is adapted from a lecture that was part of a
series on self-censorship in the media given at New York University. The
lecture series is being published this month in The Business of
Journalism (New Press).
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