This is the post excerpt.
A combination of Covid (despite three ‘jags’, as they’re known in Scotland) followed by a family visit in the south of England has meant a longish gap in these blogs … meanwhile, I’ve been advised that I need to revise a book I’ve been writing about Dostoevsky to take account of how his writings have influenced the Russian World ideology that gives intellectual underpinning to the invasion of Ukraine and all that this has involved, including the killing of many small children in missile attacks (I’ve a reason for singling this out, which I’ll come to).
There’s no argument about the fact that Dostoevsky was a fervent nationalist and, in particular, a Christian nationalist who saw Russia’s global role as inseparable from its Orthodoxy. Indeed, he believed it was Russia’s manifest destiny to retake Constantinople (Istanbul) so as to make it the international capital for all Orthodox peoples. In this spirit, he strongly advocated Russian military intervention in various of the insurgencies by Slav peoples (notably Bulgarians and Serbs) against the Ottoman rulers. In The Possessed, one character (Shatov, often seen as the character most like Dostoevsky himself) proclaims that Russia is a uniquely ‘God-bearing’ nation, implying that it is through Russia that God will become a reality for humankind. A similar view is stated by the saintly Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. And there is much more.
It’s easy to find quite a few articles out there arguing the case in reputable academic and political online journals. However, having read three or four of these, the headline banners about Dostoevsky inspiring Putin are not really supported by the texts that follow, which (to their credit) rely heavily on ‘could have’, ‘might have’, ‘possibly’, etc.
There are, after all, a number of reasons why Dostoevsky ‘might not’ have supported Putinism. For a start, as opposed to Russian intervention on behalf of Bulgaria and Serbia in the nineteenth century, the invasion of Ukraine is an attack on fellow Slavs and, in particular, largely Orthodox Slavs. Because of the importance of Orthodox identity to Dostoevsky’s version of Russian nationalism, this might have been an immediate stumbling-block. Of course, the Putinist claim is that Russia is acting on behalf of Ukrainians who are oppressed by a Nazi regime, just as the Orthodox of Dostoevsky’s time were oppressed by their Muslim rulers. However, few people outside Russia give much credence to the Denazification agenda, whereas, by contemporary international standards, Ottoman rule in the Balkan and Black Sea area was often corrupt and brutal, making an arguable case of a humanitarian intervention. Dostoevsky himself insisted that Constantinople should not be territorially annexed to Russia but kept as an open pilgrim city for all Orthodox peoples (although he himself acknowledged that this was a ‘utopian view of history’).
Then again, the idea that Russia is a God-bearing nation is actually presented in The Possessed as highly problematic and, under questioning, Shatov admits that he doesn’t really believe in God, though he wants and hopes to, indicating that Dostoevsky was aware of the theological dubiety of the idea.
Yet Dostoevsky was a religious nationalist – no doubt about it, but not in a narrow sense. As a writer he acknowledged the immeasurable debt he owed to Western writers: Shakespeare, Cervantes, Schiller, Scott, Georges Sand, Dickens, Hugo and many more (including Mrs Radcliffe, Charlotte Brontë, and Mrs Gaskell). In his final major public speech, he argued that, nevertheless, Russia had, through Pushkin, produced an ‘all-humanitarian’ literature that was unparalleled elsewhere, revealing Russia’s true genius as the ability to enter into the spirit of other peoples. This is the sort of claim that can sound ridiculous – until one stops and recalls the extraordinary impact that Russian literature of the nineteenth century really did have on the rest of the world, feeding and significantly shaping the cultural and moral thought of the twentieth century, in Europe and beyond. Dostoevsky himself is, of course, the major figure here, alongside Tolstoy, but also Chekhov, Turgenev, Lermontov and Pushkin (whom Dostoevsky would, of course, have placed first)—followed in the twentieth century by Sholokhov, Bulgakov, Grossmann, Solzhenitsyn, and, most recently, Vodolazkin (read him, if you haven’t). Not to mention the continuation of that tradition in Russian fim-making.
In this perspective, literature provides a Dostoievskian heritage that is rather different from Putinist militarism. Here, Russia’s ‘god-bearing’ capacity is precisely the ability of its writers and (remembering Zosima) its saints to inspire new insights into the ‘accursed questions’ about God, death, and suffering that pervade the pages of the great Russian novels. Could a writer who, through Ivan Karamazov, spoke so passionately about the suffering of children really endorse rocket attacks on a fellow Slavic and Orthodox nation that have killed, to date, several hundred children and maimed many more? And would he really have seen Putin as a new Tsar (as some Russians now do), dedicated to the Orthodox cause—or would he perhaps, recalling Putin’s own words that ‘there’s no such thing as an ex-KGB officer’, see the Russian President more in the mould of Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor, a man who, simultaneously sincere and cynical, uses the power of religion for political coercion and political coercion to ensure religious conformity? Or perhaps Peter Verkhovensky, the nihilist plotter who uses systematic deceit to pursue the destruction of society and its reshaping according to his revolutionary agenda?
In reality, there are no clear guidelines for deciding what Dostoevsky ‘could have’ might have’ judged about the present situation. Certainly, he made some bad political calls, but he also made some good and far-sighted calls on many other issues. Literature and utopia inform our visions and our hopes, but we have to bear responsibility for the judgements we make in our time about our time—which I take to be also a Dostoievskian point.
All over Europe, small, out-of the-way villages and towns host summer festivals of the arts, often attracting outstanding players and sometimes, as in our local festival, being broadcast to a potentially global audience. We are clearly not in the same league as Aldeburgh, but last week we were able to enjoy a sequence of outstanding concerts with performers such as the Elias Quartet, the Pavel Haas quartet, and the pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja, who, according to the programme notes (you won’t find this on Wikipedia) is honoured in her native Georgia as a ‘priestess of art’.
Reading this piqued my attention, as the ‘religion of art’ has been something of a theme this last week or so. Probably attending a Wagner opera in Berlin had something to do with it. Coming home, I followed up on this by reading Richard Bell’s excellent book on Wagner’s theology and browsing in an anthology edited by my friend Markus Kleinert.
‘The religion of art’ is very much a 19th century phenomenon, which, in cynical mode, one could see as the embourgeoisement of the revolutionary Romantic breakthrough at the start of the century. Concert halls, opera houses, and art galleries, often designed to conjure up images of Greek temples, became its places of worship, giving worshippers a metaphysical or, at least, emotional consolation that Christianity seemed increasingly unable to give. In our own time, art has become a major theme of theology itself, with the whole range of arts being plumbed for hidden (or not so hidden) theological depths. I’ve contributed to that myself and entirely ‘get’ why and how this yields many exciting possibilities. But we need to keep our critical wits about us.
Kierkegaard already reminded us that the aesthetic isn’t always very ethical, though the reviewer in the NYRB of a new novel entitled Either/Or (with a deliberate reference to Kierkegaard) acknowledged that it had never struck her that these might be at odds. The issue gets compounded when art gets tangled up in another great 19th century bourgeois phenomenon – nationalism. Wagner himself is an obvious example (as, alas, is my beloved Dostoevsky). A composer, painter, performer, or poet becomes invested with the national spirit and then, for the uncritical recipient, their work becomes wrapped in a kind of hazy divinity.
Markus Kleinert’s own contribution to the volume he edited is about the pianist Elly Ney, a renowned Beethoven performer whose career reached a peak during the Nazi period. Beethoven’s music, regarding herself as in the apostolic succession (Kleinert’s words) of the composer’s true interpreters. Beethoven today doesn’t stand under the same ideological shadow as Wagner (nor should he), but the Beethoven cult of the 1930s and war years was no less nationalistic. Ney received many letters from soldiers at the front, among them one from a Stuka pilot on the Eastern Front who wrote how, after carrying out an attack (and, by silent implication, potentially appalled by his own actions) he heard Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony on the radio ‘by chance’. This, he said, gave him back the assurance that what they were about was a good thing. More than good: ‘Our actions are sacred, because we too are defending music’.
‘The religion of art’, then. A powerful idea. But no more than the religion of the Church can it abstract itself from the rigour of moral accountability.
Which doesn’t mean I didn’t sit back and thoroughly lose myself in Schubert’s Trio number 2 – as music, not religion.
On our weekend in Berlin, we crossed and recrossed Tucholskystraße. As this was in the former East, I supposed he was some revered figure in the communist pantheon – but I didn’t really know, so when I saw a small collection of his writings (in the bright yellow pocket-size Reclam series) at a secondhand bookstall for 1 Euro, I bought it. Tucholsky, born 1890, is described as a satirist, essayist, and poet who wrote under a variety of pseudonyms, including Peter Panther, Theobald Tiger, and Kasper Hauser. Certainly, he was anti-authoritarian, anti-nationalist, and anti-Fascist but by no mean a party-line communist. Of Jewish origin, he could never contemplate joining any church, though he did not despise prayer. On a list of things he hated, he wrote ‘Germany’. On a parallel list of things he loved, he wrote Germany—without the quotation marks that marked Germany out as an ideological myth. After the rise of Hitler, he went into exile. He committed suicide in 1935.
Several of the stories in the collection that I read more or less at random were extraordinarily powerful pieces of writing, distilling an epic-length range of human suffering and emotion into a single page. Here is an example – though I don’t pretend my ad hoc translation does justice to the original.
The biochemical procedures are well-known.
Externally, it seemed that the naked, curtainless windows appeared at first to be bright-grey, then blue-grey, till finally the sky became whitish. The woman was the first to wake up. She was wearing a dirty gown and her long tousled hair hung down over her face. She looked dully round. She saw the chaos of the room around her. She looked at it through sticky, narrowed eyes: the hearth, with pots and paper, the two empty bottles on the table (and one half-full), her chemise on a chair, her clothes thrown over the back of a chair, boots, basket, bits and bobs, unwashed dishes, sheets of newspaper, a hammer. The less people own, the more full of things their rooms are. These two had only one room: kitchen, dining-room, and bedroom in one. It was there that, yesterday, she had become impregnated with a child.
She did not yet know that it would be a son. She looked at the man. He was sleeping with a half-open mouth, badly shaven, sweaty round the nose. Her look awoke him. ‘Make some coffee,’ he said, half-aloud. She was wanted to continue their intimacy. He kissed her and pushed her away, though not in an unfriendly way. She stood up. From the bed he watched her busying about and clattering the pots, he, the father.
The room looked like a crime-scene, like a photo of a room where a murder has been committed. The man got up and pulled his woollen underwear over his head. In his slippers he shuffled towards the passageway. The future mother put a crust of bread and a knife at one end of the table and two coffee cups nearby. He came back and they ate. They didn’t speak. There was nothing to say. As he chewed, he looked out of the window. There was the city.
He looked past the chimneys without seeing them. Because human beings can only see behind them and not ahead, he saw nothing. Two courtyards away a horse was standing, a young animal that in two years’ time would kick him in the lower abdomen and lay him low for months, unemployed and sick. At the corner was a clerk in an office, sharpening his pencil. The woman would run off with him, this young, cheese-pale lad, a Finn. At the back lived the doctor who was also unable to do anything for him – and further away, in the West, the factory that laid him off. For the time being, he just went on chewing, looking in front of him.
What had been conceived in the mother was a son, that white speck. He snuffed it at Verdun, on the same day that General Falkenhayn was awarded the highest military honour, the Order pour le Mérite.
The parents-to-be got up.
We spent last weekend in Berlin, about which there could be much to say. Even in its present transformed state the echoes of past catastrophes are everywhere encountered—and acknowledged. Only a few bullet-marks remain visible on the walls of older buildings, but history suffuses every stone and even the elegant and luminous structures of the modern government quarter are, in their own way, a statement about the past.
On this visit, though, it was not a place, name, image, or artefact from modern history that has remained in my mind but a face from a far more ancient history: the face of Queen Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt alongside her husband Akhenaton in the late twelfth century BC, discovered during excavations of the sculptor’s workshop in 1912 and now exhibited in Berlin’s Neues Museum.
It is probably ridiculous to claim of any individual that he or she was the most beautiful human being who had ever lived – but looking at this face from three thousand years ago such a claim seems less outlandish. Whether or not it faithfully represents the living human being, Nefertiti herself, we have perhaps no way of knowing. But even if it is an idealized portrait the ideal itself could not have been brought into being without experiences of beauty in the artist’s encounter with an actual human face and an understanding of what it is for a face to be exceptional.
We, of course, are used to and maybe even indoctrinated into the view that beauty is culturally relative. Yet finding ourselves before this face from a culture that is about as alien as it is possible for it to be, we find ourselves in the presence of unarguable beauty. The head is exhibited on its own in a centrally placed viewing cabinet in an ambiently-lit chamber approached down a long gallery, approaching it is like approaching a shrine. Standing round the cabinet were visitors from many different countries and cultures, all hushed, mesmerized even by this extraordinarily luminous face. Silent. Eloquent.
It is by no means a face shaped by modern Western standards of beauty. It is a face in which we can read African, Asian, and European echoes and anticipations. It is certainly an aristocratic face, delicate, refined, composed—yet not in the sense of being exclusive to any particular class. You could even imagine it as a face you might see at a bus-stop or on the subway in any district of any city or, to be perhaps more accurate, a face you might see echoed in a face at a bus-stop or on the subway in any district of any city. A universal face. A universal beauty.
‘Beauty will save the world’ wrote Dostoevsky and, looking at this face, it is a plausible claim. Perhaps it is not irrelevant that, with Akhenaton, Nefertiti (whose name even means ‘beauty has come’) jointly presided over the institution of a new religion, the religion of the sun that, if Jaspers’ hypothesis of the axial age is at all correct, continues to shape what we today understand by the divine: the luminous and radiant power that gives life to all that is. A face, then, that could launch not a thousand ships but a new divinity.
And, like all epiphanies, the epiphany of Nefertiti’s beauty inspires humility and gratitude.
Note: I have been familiar with the reproduction of the Berlin bust in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge since my childhood and have, of course, seen reproductions of it many times. But it was only the presence of the work itself that allowed me to see it for what it is. An argument against Walter Benjamin’s view regarding the loss of the aura of great works of art?
A further note: And, of course, any such work today raises questions as to ownership and location. That’s a question for another day.
I am currently rereading William McIlvanney’s trilogy of crime novels featuring Jack Laidlaw, who, at first glance, is the standard mid-life-crisis, hard-drinking, rule-bending loner detective. Through Laidlaw, McIlvanney leads us to and though the real subject of his novels—Glasgow and its people. As seen by the author and his hero, this is a city shaped by two hundred years of living with the extremes of wealth and poverty that have engendered gross corruption and endemic violent criminality, borne by its people with the help of complex codes of behaviour within and between social groups, gritty endurance and an invincibly sharp humour—and, of course, alcohol and narcotics. Visiting the sister (‘abut seventy going on seventeen’) of a murdered wino, Laidlaw is moved by the woman’s faithfulness to her old-fashioned domestic values.
‘She was one of a species he recognised. They were decency’s martyrs, who would treat death itself with instinctive politeness, the unofficial good, uncalendared. You wouldn’t find their names in any book of fame but Laidlaw believed they were the best of us because they gave off their good, quite naturally, in actions. They weren’t dedicated to God or high political principles or some idea but to an unforced daily generosity of giving, a making more bearable for others and themselves. And they were legion.
Everybody, Laidlaw thought, must know many of them. He himself was in debt to countless of them, aunties and uncles, strangers chatted to in pubs, small miracles of humanity witnessed, unself-aware. Recently, on a trip back to Ayrshire, he had caught up with another, Old Jock, ex-roadman in his seventies who lived uncomplaining with his wife on a pittance of a pension, spending more on his budgies than he did on himself. His modest Calvary had been forty years on the roads for barely enough to feed his family and him, coming back home on black winter mornings from a night spent spreading grit, his hands bulbous from overuse and skinned with the cold. He had taken it as no concern of anybody but him. It was what he did. Laidlaw remembered him admitting, almost embarrassedly, that he had never clenched a fist against anyone that he could remember in his life.
Faced with people like Jock, or Jinty Adamson, Laidlaw was reminded that he didn’t want the heaven of the holy or the Utopia of the idealists. He wanted the scuffle of living now every day as well as he could manage without the exclusive air-conditioning of creeds and, after it, just the right to lie down with those others who had settled for the same. It seemed to him the hardest thing to do.’
Despite the almost standard (and understandable) objections to creeds and organised religion that crop up here and throughout the novels, this is a vision of secular sainthood deeply informed by Christian tradition. And McIlvanney isn’t above the occasional acute theological observation: ‘Why blame the minister? People got the religion the honesty of their confrontation with death entitled them to.’ Kierkegaard and Heidegger couldn’t have put it better.
Today I was reading in a short work of philosophy in the introduction of which the author says the following:
‘These studies will be found deficient in many respects. Sometimes the reader will perceive contradictory remarks and conflicting views. Arguments will be discovered which break off before reaching any satisfactory conclusion. I have not always been able to make very clear the relevance of particular matters to the great point at issue. Many conceptual analyses, for example those in chapter two, are obscure, tentative, and imperfect. But it would have been dishonest of me, had I tried to impose a harmonious and coherent appearance on the presentation of my thinking, for any such harmony could only have been false. In much of this thinking I have not yet succeeded in achieving any final and coherent opinions on the profound issues with which Kierkegaard fought.’
The book was published in 1972: it is of course impossible to imagine these or similar words being written today in any work of philosophy (or any other humanities subject) aimed at publication in the UK. The Procrustean bed of internal peer review and external evaluation would require not only a clear and unambiguous statement of aims but also insistent and probably repeated asseverations that these aims had not only been achieved but also that they had effected a major paradigm shift in the relevant field—not to mention a quantifiable impact on the wider society. Nevertheless, it is an entirely worthwhile, thoughtful and thought-provoking work. My short conclusion is: so much the worse for the UK and for other countries in which humanities education is being dragged (or in some cases enthusiastically throwing itself) towards the entire metrification of knowledge. Intellectual modesty and maybe even intellectual honesty are early casualties of such a change.
Meanwhile, and on another matter, it would be easy for a cynic to say that the bloodier the conflict in Ukraine, the further it slips down the news agenda. So quickly is war normalized.
Earlier this week, we watched the Danish Netflix movie Bombardment (Danish title: Skyggen i øjet/ The shadow in the eye). It was at times almost unwatchable, not least because we knew what was going to happen.
It is a dramatized version of a raid by allied (British, Australian, and New Zealand) fighter-bombers on Copenhagen, known as Operation Carthage. It took place in March 1945 and the aim was to destroy the Gestapo headquarters and to do so without hitting the floor on which prisoners from the Danish resistance were being held. It was timed for mid-morning, when the maximum number of Nazi officials woold be present. This was, of course, pre-GPS and the precision targeting had to be done, essentially, by eye. In the event, the Gestapo headquarters were destroyed and eighteen resistance fighters were able to escape. Thus far, the raid was a success. However, it is best-known for what went wrong.
The planes, known as Mosquitos, had been designed for low-level, high-speed attacks that would avoid enemy radar. Documentary footage on Yoube shows how low—at or even below roof-level. Disastrously, the wing tip of one plane hit a lamp post, causing it to lose control and crash into a school in the leafy suburbs Fredericksberg. Unusually for Denmark, this was a Catholic school, the Jeanne d’Arc School, run by nuns. Worse was to follow. Seeing the smoke from the crashed plane, subsequent attack planes assumed this was smoke coming up from the real target and sent their bombs into the wreckage of the school. Because it was mid-morning, the school day was in full swing and there had been no advance air-raid warning. Altogether 86 children and 18 adults, several of the nuns, were killed.
Obviously, this was not the intention of the raid. Those who carried it out were highly trained and hugely courageous. Their cause was as good as any cause in war can be, specifically aimed at freeing prisoners of Nazi torturers. But the outcome was a horrendous catastrophe. A massacre—albeit an unintentional massacre—of the innocents.
Returning to the present war, it seems obvious that even if the Russian army had been more disciplined and better trained in what the British Army call ‘courageous restraint’, there would have been appalling civilian casualties; if not one day, then the next; if not here, then there. At some points we will also hear of civilian deaths, including children, as a result of Ukrainian fire. As in Operation Carthage, this doesn’t have to be intentional. It may be unintentional, the result of an accident or wrong information. This is war, it’s what happens. When I make a mistake in my work, all that results is a misspelling or a garbled sentence. When military personnel, people—and not necessarily their enemies—are killed. All of this is known and has been known since the earliest recorded history. So much the more responsibility falls on those who set wars in motion—and in this case that is one man, the Russian President.
I remain unsure as to why we watch films like Bombardment. As I said at the outset, it’s almost unendurable—and that’s only on television. We don’t need the often rather absurd sub-plots that such fictionalizations employ to feel the tragedy of the event. We just have to stop and think.
I have just been rereading (after many years) Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel, An Artist of the Floating World. Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, the central character is an artist who has used his art to promote the imperialist cause and must now confront his share of culpability in the disaster that has overwhelmed Japan—including, specifically, the denunciation of a fellow artist. He is trained in the tradition of Utamaro who painted scenes of the ‘floating world’ of artistic life in the city’s pleasure quarters and what we might call its ‘Bohemian’ ethos. His teacher encourages students to develop this tradition in the direction of ever more fleeting, ever more suggestive images, catching the evanescent, smoke-like transience of that world. Turning his back on this, he opts instead for in-your-face propagandistic work that wins him considerable success in the militaristic and imperialistic political culture of the 1930s and early war years but, of course, has the opposite effect when Japan falls—to the point of damaging his daughter’s marriage prospects.
The narrator, it should be said, is an extremely unreliable narrator. We don’t really get to know just how significant an artist he was or the extent of his political crimes. Still less do we get definitive insight into the sincerity of his repentance and we are left questioning how much insight he himself achieves into his own motives and actions. Having traded in his teacher’s insistence on eliminating clearly marked contours in favour of the bold outlines of political art, his life is paradoxically left suspended in a contourless world of uncertain shapes and shifting currents.
Nevertheless, what is clear is that he has lived through a historical moment that, for better or worse, has defined who he is and what his legacy to his family and country will be. Such moments are only occasional. Paul Tillich referred to them by the New Testament term ‘kairos’, as in Jesus’s phrase ‘the time is fulfilled’, meaning, the moment has come when you must choose and how you choose will define you for the rest of your life. We do not choose such moments, and often they don’t come in the form that we’d like. Versus the modern conviction that any one of us can do whatever we want, such moments pin us to a history not of our making—though we are responsible for how we then react.
What we have been living through since the Russian invasion of Ukraine is one such moment. I write this highly conscious of the fact that the early euphoria-like days in which everyone was, obviously, standing with Ukraine is fading. Many, including some political leaders, are thinking the time for compromise is coming. As the fighting gets heavier, other matters are displacing the war from our headlines.
Private citizens, of course, can only do so much and there are many other causes and issues that rightly claim our attention. Ukrainians as well as Scots will be watching their countries compete for a place in the football world cup tomorrow night. We cannot make politicians’ decisions for them, but I am daily more convinced of the extraordinary evil that has been unleashed in this war and the resulting suffering—and with no proportionate reason. We are not the ones fighting and dying—but are we really starting to think that this is an evil with which we can and should compromise?
Can one ever pray enough in such times?
The usual delays and extended intervals in putting up this blog have been made worse in the last couple of weeks by an unexpected 48-hour stay in hospital – preceded, of course, by a certain build-up and followed by various adjustments. Given all the discussion of the state of the National Health Service in the media, it was instructive in a number of ways, so I thought I’d share some thoughts.
I’ll spare you the details, but I observe that (1) communication with and within the NHS is chaotic—my first communication was Friday evening, but I was only admitted in the early hours of Monday morning; just dealing with this would save patients anxiety and staff stress; (2) once you become a patient, your view of the world undergoes a sudden and dramatic shift; ‘abandon shame all you who enter here’; (3) despite communication and organizational malfunctions the staff really are consistently friendly and supportive and work long, long hours—we shouldn’t have stopped clapping for them; (4) an old story that I heard many, many times in the days when I was a regular hospital visitor, ‘There’s always someone worse off than yourself’—a grim truth that at least encourages a certain stoicism; (5) daytime TV is as bad as I guessed it would be—yet weirdly hypnotic; (6) a Danish Facebook acquaintance has been infuriated because when he went to Sweden, a uniformed border official was wearing a hijab, which, he felt, was an affront to his personal secularism—however, from the perspective of a hospital bed nothing matters less than whether the person caring for you is wearing a hijab (some did), have a caste mark (some did), wear a Crucifix or Star of David (didn’t notice), or, for that matter, have a tattoo of Thor on their forearm (none that I saw, but it’s possible). My Danish secularist friends, I’m sorry if you don’t like this but it’s time to grow up and get over it. (7) It’s almost inconceivable how staff can continue to run a modern hospital under the conditions we are seeing in Ukraine (and, of course, Yemen and elsewhere)—how do you go about healing when the hospital itself is under fire?
I’ve now finished Carlyle’s French Revolution, which, as the editor suggests, is to be read more in the manner of The Iliad than as an objective historical account. It is history as moral and metaphysical instruction, but also deeply emotional and human. Part of Carlyle’s technique is to be constantly varying the point of view, writing in the first person plural but now from the side of one party, now the other, now in the voice of France’s enemies, now in that of the republic’s most fervent proponents. Often—usually—he does not pause to explain the backstory or origin of a particular character, referring to him or her by some adjective—‘unhappy’, ‘noble’, ‘fierce’, as the case may be, rapidly sketching a profile sufficient to see that character through the particular episode in which they have become an actor. Movement, turmoil, a heightening of the pulse—these are all sustained over 700+ pages. A great epic indeed.
Polyphonic, then—but Carlyle clearly has his favourites, his soft spots. Although he excoriates the corruption of the ancient regime, which, in his view, is the chief cause of the Revolution and the horrific violence it engendered, he is tender towards Marie Antoinette, who was, after all, on thirty-eight when she went to the guillotine. He clearly prefers Danton to Robespierre. Danton is ‘the Reality’, always ‘the man Danton’. Robespierre is ‘a poor spasmodic incorruptible pedant, with a logic-formula instead of a heart’. Roberpierre’s Feast of the Être Suprême is described as ‘the shabbiest page of human annals’. Danton’s words to the executioner are implicitly endorsed by the historian: ‘Thou wilt show my head to the crowd; it is worth showing’. Robespierre’s execution, by way of contrast, has no heroic last gesture. In a failed suicide attempt he had blown off half his jaw the night before and comes bandaged and semi-conscious to the scaffold where he is cursed by a woman who speaks for all the wives and mothers whose husbands and children he had sent there. But, for all his contempt, Carlyle is not without some pity. Robespierre dies ‘deservedly, and also undeservedly … A man fitted, in some luckier age, to have become one of those incorruptible barren Pattern-Figures, and have had marble-tablets and funeral-sermons’. As he concludes, ‘His poor Landlord, the Cabinet-maker in the Rue Saint-Honoré, loved him; his Brother died for him. May God be merciful to him, and to us!’
Carlyle’s is a moral tale, it has its heroes and its villains, but the historian does not set himself up as final judge and is at all times mindful that, as Jesus said, God sends his blessings on the just and unjust. And I remind myself that, at the time of writing, there were still many alive who remembered these events—a bit like me writing about the 1970s. And, in our own violent times, it is worth remembering that even the worst are usually loved by some and ‘in luckier times’ might have done some good for their society.