Archive for the 'Books' Category

Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward: “A definite opinion has been established.”

I should start by explaining that Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward is about a cancer ward. The reviewers, like this one in the New York Times, 1968, are going to tell you that the ward symbolizes the Soviet Union, and the cancer the moral rot eating away at the souls of the Soviet people:

As “One Day [in the Life of Ivan Denisovich]” stands for the agony of all Russia under Stalin, so “The Cancer Ward” irresistibly conveys an image of the immediate post-Stalin period when both victims and executioners were confined, all equally mutilated, in the cancer ward of the nation.

…and that Solzhenitsyn was just being cagey when he told the secretariat of the Union of Soviet Writers – who had declined to approve his book for publication – that,

The fact is that the subject is specifically and literally cancer, a subject avoided in literature, but nevertheless a reality as its victims know only too well from daily experience.

cancer ward alexander solzhenitsyn

In that meeting (a transcript is included as an appendix in the Bantam paperback edition of Cancer Ward), whenever Solzhenitsyn was invited to speak he made a point of disavowing his earlier, more explicitly political play Feast of the Conquerors, which had particularly upset the bigwigs. He told them that he now regarded his play as “very dangerous”. [1] He could’ve told them to stuff it – one kind of wishes he had – but at this point he still had hopes of pestering them into greenlighting his new novel.

(They never did. They kicked him out of the union a couple years later.)

So sure, he was being cagey. But I think he meant what he said about Cancer Ward. He must have known that his subject would invite all kinds of speculation about its symbolic significance, but it really is a book about life in a cancer ward. That seems to have been a big part of what annoyed the commissars from the Union of Soviet Writers. Why cancer, comrade? Isn’t it just kind of gratuitously depressing? As a member of the secretariat named Kerbabaev put it,

Why does the author see only the black?

This line of criticism echoes one of the debates within the novel, which begins when a patient named Podduyev, a man of rude and unreflecting vitality, is given a book of short stories. To his surprise, one of the stories seems to answer a question that’s been haunting him for weeks, as he has grappled with the reality of his disease. He decides to share his revelation with the others in the cancer ward:

“Listen, here’s a story,” he announced in a loud voice. “It’s called ‘What Men Live By’.” He grinned. “Who can know a thing like that? What do men live by?”

Treating the title as a riddle, he challenges the other patients to offer their speculations. One suggests that men live by air, water, and food. Another, by their pay. Another, by their professional skill.

In the bed across from Podduyev is a self-satisfied little man called Rusanov, a person of some political influence – for instance, rather than wearing the ill-fitting pyjamas assigned by the hospital, he’s been allowed to bring in his own. Later we’ll learn that Rusanov has acquired his position through the strategic denunciation of neighbours and co-workers.

Relaxing his customary aloofness toward the other patients, Rusanov decides to settle the debate:

“There’s no difficulty about that,” he said. “Remember: people live by their ideological principles and by the interests of their society.”

Discomfited by Rusanov’s tone of certainty, Podduyev attempts to summarize the story in his own words. It’s a fable about a poor cobbler who takes as an apprentice a mysterious beggar who, it soon emerges, may have the power of prophecy.

Rusanov has no patience for such mystical nonsense. He interrupts Podduyev, demanding that he skip to the end and tell them what, in the author’s opinion, men live by.

“What do they live by?” He could not say it aloud somehow. It seemed almost indecent. “It says here, by love.”

“Love? . . . No, that’s nothing to do with our sort of morality.”

Upon being demanded to tell who wrote this sentimental tripe, Podduyev haltingly enunciates the author’s name: “Tol . . . stoy.” Not, it soon emerges, Alexei Tolstoy, winner of the Stalin Prize, but “the other one” – that old pious fraud whose ideological errors had been settled long ago by Lenin, who wrote in 1908 that,

The contradictions in Tolstoy’s works, views, doctrines, in his school, are indeed glaring. … On the one hand, the most sober realism, the tearing away of all and sundry masks; on the other, the preaching of one of the most odious things on earth, namely, religion[.]

Having reminded his listeners of these facts, Rusanov retires complacently from the debate.

But the topic comes up again some days later. Along with Podduyev and Rusanov the ward contains a romantic character called Kostoglotov, a former political prisoner subsequently exiled to a remote village in Central Asia. (The location of the hospital is never spelled out, but is presumably Tashkent, where the author was treated for cancer after his stint in prison.)

A cynic with a long scar on his cheek from a brawl with urkas in the Gulag, [2] Kostoglotov inevitably winds up at odds with the doctrinaire Rusanov. But they have in common a sermonizing bent, which one evening inspires Kostoglotov to hold forth on the healing properties of optimism:

“So I wouldn’t be surprised,” Kostoglotov continued, “if in a hundred years’ time they discover that our organism excretes some kind of cesium salt when our conscience is clear, but not when it’s burdened, and that it depends on this cesium salt whether the cells grow into a tumor or whether the tumor resolves.”

[Podduyev] sighed hoarsely. “I’ve mucked so many women about, left them with children hanging round their necks. They cried . . . mine’ll never resolve.”

“What’s that got to do with it?” [Rusanov] suddenly lost his temper. “The whole idea’s sheer religious rubbish! You’ve read too much slush, Comrade Podduyev, you’ve disarmed yourself ideologically. You keep harping on about that stupid moral perfection!”

“What’s so terrible about moral perfection?” said Kostoglotov aggressively. “Why should moral perfection give you such a pain in the belly? It can’t harm anyone – except someone who’s a moral monstrosity!”

“You . . . watch what you’re saying!”

[Rusanov] flashed his spectacles with their glinting frames; he held his head straight and rigid, as if the tumor wasn’t pushing it under the right of the jaw. “There are questions on which a definite opinion has been established, and they are no longer open to discussion.”

“Why can’t I discuss them?” Kostoglotov glared at Rusanov with his large dark eyes. […]

“If you wish to state your opinion, at least employ a little elementary knowledge.” [Rusanov] pulled his opponent up, articulating each word syllable by syllable. “The moral perfection of Leo Tolstoy and company was described once and for all by Lenin, and by Comrade Stalin, and by Gorky.”

“Excuse me,” answered Kostoglotov, restraining himself with difficulty. He stretched one arm out toward Rusanov. “No one on this earth ever says anything ‘once and for all’. If they did, life would come to a stop and succeeding generations would have nothing to say.”

[Rusanov] was taken aback. The tops of his delicate white ears turned quite red, and round red patches appeared on his cheeks.

In a realistic twist, Kostoglotov soon finds himself contradicting himself – he started out arguing for optimism and now finds himself arguing for facing up to the grim facts:

“Why stop a man from thinking? After all, what does our philosophy of life boil down to? ‘Oh, life is so good! . . . Life, I love you. Life is for happiness!’ What profound sentiments. Any animal can say as much without our help, any hen, cat, or dog.”

And as the other patients jump in with their own opinions, and Rusanov is distracted by a twinge in his tumor, the discussion veers off in another direction.

***

One of the ironies of this scene is that the more sympathetic figure in the quarrel is arguing for what we would now describe as some kind of holistic “alternative medicine” approach to cancer treatment – the kind that many of us, myself included, would wave off as pseudo-scientific quackery. Shortly after proclaiming his right to think and speak freely, Kostoglotov is invited by another patient to elaborate on a folk remedy to which he’d previously alluded:

“Friends!” he said, with uncharacteristic volubility. “This is an amazing tale. I heard it from a patient who came in for a checkup while I was still waiting to be admitted. I had nothing to lose, so straightaway I sent off a postcard with this hospital’s address on it for the reply. And an answer has come today, already!”

Kostoglotov’s correspondent is a country doctor near Moscow, who (the letter explains) observed that cancer was rare among the peasants he treated. Deducing that this immunity was derived from their consumption of a tea made from a birch tree fungus called chaga, the doctor now promotes the fungus as an anti-cancer remedy. His letter contains a recipe for drying the fungus and preparing the tea: Kostoglotov reads the instructions aloud, and the other patients eagerly copy it down.

The catch is that the chaga can only be found on certain birches in northern forests, far from the Central Asian plain:

“He says here there are people who call themselves suppliers, ordinary enterprising people who gather the chaga, dry it and send it to you cash on delivery. But they charge a lot, fifteen roubles a kilogram, and you need six kilograms a month.”

Rusanov is, of course, outraged by such profiteering:

“What sort of a conscience do they have, fleecing people for something that nature provides free?”

But his Communist principles don’t prevent him from joining the other patients in importuning Kostoglotov for the address of the supplier of the miracle cure. Kostoglotov, however, resolves to share the secret only with a few of his closest friends among the patients.

After this, the chaga is mentioned only in passing; one of the patients gets his hands on some, but we never find out whether it helps him.

Equally unknown is whether Solzhenitsyn tried chaga in the treatment of his own cancer – though some seem to think he did. Lately chaga, which also grows in Canadian forests, has been promoted as a “superfood”, leading to overharvesting of the rare fungus. Whether it actually does anything is open to question.

There is another herbal treatment mentioned in Cancer Ward – “the root from Issyk Kul”, an infusion of aconite in vodka. When Kostoglotov’s doctor discovers that he’s been treating himself with the highly poisonous compound, acquired from a medicine man in the country, she insists that he hand the bottle over to her. He resists:

“When I leave the clinic I’ll want the root extract to treat myself with. I don’t suppose you believe it works?”

“No, of course I don’t. It’s just a lot of dark superstition and playing games with death. I believe in systematic science, practically tested. That’s what I was taught and that’s the way all oncologists think. Give me the bottle.” […]

“Oh, I know about your sacred science,” he sighed. “If it were all so categorical, it wouldn’t be disproved every ten years!”

Former president of the American Cancer Society Vincent T. DeVita described how in the early 1970s one of his patients, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, was told by Solzhenitsyn that he credited a similar infusion – not of aconite, but of mandrake root – for the remission of his cancer.

The ambassador, suffering from advanced cancer of the pancreas, brought Dr. DeVita a handful of mandrake root and some 80-proof vodka and asked for his help preparing the medicine per the author’s recipe. DeVita declined – this wasn’t “systematic science, practically tested” – but gave the ambassador leave to try it on his own.

After the ambassador’s death – from cancer, not self-medication – his wife brought DeVita the remainder of the medicine they’d prepared, and asked him to have it analyzed:

I called the chief of our natural products branch, told him the story, and asked if he would do it. His interest was piqued. “Sure,” he said.

A month later he called me, expressing his amazement: “Vince, this stuff contained two cancer drugs we have had under development, VP-16 and alpha peltatin.” […]

“Not only that,” he continued, but the exact concentration of alcohol needed to extract the alkaloids from the roots is the concentration in 80 proof vodka. “And, you’re not going to believe this, but there is enough drug in eight grams of root to provide a therapeutic dose of VP-16,” he said. In other words, Solzhenitsyn’s root-and-vodka recipe had neatly created a version of the medication strong enough to treat cancer.

***

There are two ways to read Solzhenitsyn – well, there are hundreds, I suppose, but let’s stick to the two. You can read him as an uncompromising evangelist for Truth – the Truth that goes on happening while academics and bureaucrats squeak contrary pronouncements from within their clockwork models of ideological clarity. This is the reading typified by the social conservative author and blogger Rod Dreher, who has named his upcoming book Live Not By Lies after an essay Solzhenitsyn wrote in 1974 – shortly before he got kicked out of his country:

If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside.

That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously to remain a servant of falsehood … or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.

Whereas I tend to read Solzhenitsyn as an evangelist of Uncertainty. The last time I wrote about him I quoted this passage from The First Circle. The setting is a prison – once again, Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences formed the basis of the story – and the character being described is the prison’s security officer, Major Shikin:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

Like Major Shikin, Rusanov in Cancer Ward is secure in his own well-meaningness: he only wants to protect his fellow patients from being exposed to dangerous falsehoods. We might scoff at his statement that “There are questions on which a definite opinion has been established, and they are no longer open to discussion” – and yet few of us would argue for absolute open-mindedness. The idea that Tolstoy’s supposed ideological errors, as defined by Lenin, should be one of those undiscussable questions strikes us as absurd, just as it would strike Rusanov as absurd that – well, choose your own article of contemporary dogma.

I’m afraid that if I were in that Tashkent cancer ward listening to Kostoglotov prattle on about herbal remedies, I would react much as Rusanov did: “If you wish to state your opinion, at least employ a little elementary knowledge.” (Although I wouldn’t say it out loud.) While Kostoglotov dosed himself with mysterious rural potations, I would defer to the scientific opinions of the doctors. And if I’d been brought up believing that Lenin had scientifically settled the question of Tolstoy’s literary merit, I suppose I’d defer to that opinion too.

M.

1. If Solzhenitsyn’s Feast of the Conquerors has ever been translated into English, it seems not to be online. Nowadays it usually goes by the name Feast of the Victors or The Victors’ Feast. Russian readers can find it here: Пир победителей.

The author made a triumphant appearance at the play’s belated world premiere in Moscow in 1995.

2. The urkas or urki were thieves (my edition of Cancer Ward translates the term as “hoods”) who, as “socially friendly” elements – enemies of private property – were given an easier ride in Soviet prison than the “politicals”. As Solzhenitsyn explains in Part III of The Gulag Archipelago:

Here is what our laws were like for thirty years – to 1947: For robbery of the state, embezzlement of state funds, a packing case from a warehouse, for three potatoes from a collective farm – ten years! (After 1947 it was as much as twenty!) But robbery of a free person? Suppose they cleaned out an apartment, carting off on a truck everything the family had acquired in a lifetime. If it was not accompanied by murder, then the sentence was up to one year, sometimes six months.

Conscious of their privileged status, the urkas would rob and tyrannize the political prisoners while the guards did nothing:

[I]t was much better for the business of oppression; the thieves carried it out much more brazenly, much more brutally, and without the least fear of responsibility before the law.

Much like convicts in American prisons who take it upon themselves to dole out extra punishment to sex offenders, the urkas regarded their abuse of the politicals as a matter of honour. Solzhenitsyn quotes an ex-convict:

I was even proud that although a thief I was not a traitor and betrayer. On every convenient occasion they tried to teach us thieves that we were not lost to our Motherland, that even if we were profligate sons, we were nevertheless sons. But there was no place for the “Fascists” on this earth.

The “Fascists” included reprobates like Kostoglotov in Cancer Ward, sentenced to eight years, followed by permanent exile to Central Asia, for participation in a non-approved university discussion group.

For more on the urkas, this undergrad thesis by Elizabeth T. Klements is worth reading: “Worse Than Guards:” Ordinary Criminals and Political Prisoners in the GULAG (1918-1950)

There must be something about that “Major Shikin” passage from The First Circle that really speaks to me. I first used it in a discussion last year of Jordan Peterson, and a few months later I trotted it out again in a critique of the movie It: Chapter Two. Having used it three times, it’s probably time for me to retire it.

 

Two literary eunuchs.

In this retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Gladiator, that film’s co-star Djimon Hounsou says something odd:

The initial script had me being the head of slaves during that time and I said, “I shouldn’t be the definition of slavery.” Slavery didn’t exist back then, so, what are we talking about, really? We’re talking about using humans to do that sort of fighting entertainment and all those people were considered slaves.

Now, English isn’t Hounsou’s first language, so he might have misspoken, or been misheard. Or perhaps he subscribes to some esoteric definition of “slavery” that somehow excludes the Roman variety. But on the surface it appears that one of the stars of Gladiator­­ – a movie about slavery in ancient times – came away from it believing that there was no slavery in ancient times.

Speaking of fictional depictions of slavery…

***

“Two literary eunuchs” would be a good title for a bitchy essay about a pair of insufficiently virile male authors. Tolkien and Lewis, maybe? Auden and Isherwood? These nerds? But I’m not sufficiently virile to write such an essay.

Instead I’ll be talking about two actual eunuchs from literature – and from history – the narrators of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy and Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius.

the persian boy mary renault

Between 1969 and 1981 Mary Renault wrote a biography and a loose trilogy of historical novels about Alexander the Great. I can recommend them all, but especially the middle chapter of the trilogy, The Persian Boy, from 1972, which describes the most eventful period of Alexander’s career from the perspective of a eunuch slave boy who is taken into his personal service.

In Renault’s telling, Bagoas is the child of a Persian aristocrat who, during the dynastic manoeuvrings that brought King Darius to the throne, was killed on the orders of the previous king’s vizier (also named Bagoas, to the confusion of later students of history). Marked for death, the handsome ten year old is instead carried off by one of his father’s murderers:

He did not keep me long, being in need of money. In the dealer’s courtyard at Susa, city of lilies, I stood stripped naked, while they drank date wine out of little cups, and haggled over my price. […]

The dealer’s house was strong as a prison, with courtyard walls fifteen feet high. On one side was a shed, where they did the gelding. They had purged and starved me first, which is thought to make it safer; I was led in cold and empty, to see the table with the knives, and the frame with splayed-out legs to which they bind you, with old black blood on it and dirty straps. Then at last I threw myself at the dealer’s feet and clasped them crying. But they made no more of it than farmhands of the bawling bull-calf.

The newly-made eunuch spends two quiet years as a page-boy to the wife of a local merchant, but as he grows older and his good looks attract the eyes of the men in the bazaar, his owner decides to make a little extra cash pimping him out to his customers. The boy proves so popular that he comes to the attention of the agents of the royal household, and at age thirteen Bagoas is sold again, to begin his training in “the rites of the bedchamber”.

I wonder whether Renault’s book could be published in the current climate of hypersensitivity about depictions of underage sexuality. While Bagoas begins his royal service traumatized by his experiences as a child prostitute, he reluctantly finds himself enjoying his “training” at the hands of an older eunuch. He soon graduates to service in the royal bedchamber, where the ageing Darius handles him gently, kissing and dandling him “like a doll”, but:

In all the time I was with him, he gave no sign of knowing a eunuch can feel anything. One does not tell such things to the King of Kings, if he does not ask.

***

In an Author’s Note, Renault adds that while the real Bagoas’ backstory is unknown,

the conjecture that he was of good birth is not fanciful. Such boys, whose looks had been taken care of and not spoiled by malnutrition or hardship, once enslaved were always at the highest risk of prostitution. Sokrates’ disciple Phaidon (Phaedo) is the best-known case.

the last of the wine mary renault

Phaedo – the namesake of one of Plato’s best-known dialogues – appears in Renault’s earlier novel The Last of the Wine, set among the young followers of Socrates during the Peloponnesian War. She makes Phaedo a native of Melos, an island besieged in 416 BC after defying Athenian demands for tribute. Wounded in the defense of his city, the boy is recuperating in bed when starvation obliges the defenders to submit:

[T]he gates were opened and the Athenians marched in. Presently he heard a great shrieking of women, and the death-cries of men. Soldiers ran in, dragged him from his bed to the Agora, and threw him down among a crowd of young lads and children, who had been herded into the sheep-pound. Just across the square was a pile of corpses newly killed, and still being added to; sticking out of the midst of it was his father’s head. [1]

Purchased in the slave-market by the manager of an Athens bathhouse, Phaedo soon “learned the arts of his calling, and commanded a high price”.

The narrator attempts to befriend the shy, skittish boy who is accustomed to sit in silence at Socrates’ feet. (In the dialogue named for him, Phaedo describes himself sitting on a low stool while Socrates “stroked my head and pressed the hair on the back of my neck, for he was in the habit of playing with my hair at times”.) Phaedo’s new friends are unaware that he is a slave, a fact he conceals not only out of shame, but to protect others from the ignominy of being associated with a bathhouse boy. When he reveals his secret, he is careful to explain that he met Socrates not as a client, but while on an unauthorized break from his trade – he has learned the trick of locking the door so that his manager will think he has a customer, and going out through a window to roam the city.

Later some members of Socrates’ circle send one of their number to the bathhouse to invite Phaedo to a dinner party. This leads to an awkward moment:

“In due course I knocked, and Phaedo opened. All he had on was the paint on his face. I knew then I shouldn’t have come. The next moment he slammed-to the door. He was almost too quick for me, but being rather stronger I managed to hold it. ‘Next room,’ he said through the crack, ‘I’m engaged’ – ‘Wait, Phaedo,’ I began. Suddenly he flung open the door so that I nearly fell inside. He stood there laughing. He looked like something you might come upon in a dark wood. ‘Come in, Lysis,’ he said. ‘Honour the threshold. Who am I to turn away trade?'”

Phaedo is eventually bought by one of Socrates’ friends and set free. He never discusses his past clients, but occasionally the narrator will notice him “watching with irony in his dark eye” as some citizen pontificates about morality.

Luckily for Phaedo, at this time it wasn’t the Greek custom to make eunuchs of their slaves, a practice they regarded with disgust – though as Bagoas states in The Persian Boy, set almost a century later,

[S]o long as they sold boys young into the brothels, I did not think the Greeks had so much to boast of.

***

To resume the narrative of The Persian Boy: After King Darius ignominiously flees Alexander’s army at Gaugamela, Bagoas joins his slow retreat northward through the mountains, faithfully serving his master while his generals and courtiers scheme to depose him. When the coup comes, and the remnants of Persian resistance scatter, the boy finds himself masterless and alone, with no choice but to offer his services in the camp of the pursuing Macedonians:

I waited by the fidgeting horses, while the Macedonians looked at me. Among Persians, the eunuch knows himself marked out at sight by his lack of beard; it was most strange to be in a crowd where no young man had one. Alexander had shaved from his youth, and liked his fashion followed. Persian soldiers would have had any man’s blood, who told them to make themselves like eunuchs; but I don’t think this had even occurred to the Macedonians. They had no eunuchs. I was the only one.

Accustomed to the formal rigours of the Persian court, Bagoas is at first repelled by the easy manners of the Macedonians – “uncouth westerners” who drink heavily, banter playfully with their king, and exercise shamelessly in the nude. They in turn detest him as a “spayed catamite” and resent his “fawning barbarians ways”.

The young king, whom Bagoas find surprisingly courteous “for someone reared in the wilds”, is more receptive to eastern customs. Appreciating his new servant’s elegant manners and remarkable beauty, he employs him as a personal attendant, and later as a Persian language instructor, but declines to invite him to his bedchambers. It is Bagoas who first falls in love with Alexander, and eventually succeeds in seducing him.

funeral games mary renault

Bagoas appears again in Renault’s Funeral Games, set amid the struggles for succession at the time of Alexander’s death. The general Ptolemy watches as Bagoas tenderly nurses the dying king:

At first Ptolemy had disliked this exotic presence haunting Alexander’s living-quarters, encouraging him to assume the trappings of Persian royalty and the manners of a Persian court, having his ear day and night. But he was a fixture one had grown used to.

In Renault’s telling Bagoas became not only Alexander’s lover but one of his nearest confidantes, inspiring his vision of his new empire as a synthesis of the best of eastern and western civilizations. In practice this meant that the relatively democratic norms of Macedonia were supplanted by the pomp and rigidity of Persia.

As word got back to Greece about Alexander’s eastern pretensions – like expecting visitors to prostrate themselves before him – his political enemies began to incorporate Bagoas, in the character of a conniving oriental courtier, into their “anti-Macedonian agitprop”. In her 1975 biography The Nature of Alexander, Renault compellingly refutes the story that Bagoas fabricated a charge of tomb-robbing against a satrap who had insulted him. As relayed by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius:

On one side Bagoas, on the other those whom he had suborned, filled the king’s ears with false charges. Before Orsines suspected that he was being accused he was delivered into bondage. Not content with the punishment of an innocent man, the eunuch laid his hand on him as he was about to be executed. Orsines with a glance at him said: “I had heard that women once reigned in Asia; this however is something new, for a eunuch to reign!”

In The Persian Boy Renault makes Orsines genuinely guilty of various crimes, including complicity in the murder of Bagoas’ family.

***

count belisarius robert graves

Unluckily for generations of boy slaves, Alexander’s policy of fusionism led to the adoption of many Persian practices in the west. In a 1937 poem Robert Graves imagined some soldiers of the Byzantine Empire, posted on the eastern frontier, sneering as Alexander’s uncouth Macedonians might have at the decadence of big city customs:

We can know little (as we care little)
Of the Metropolis: her candled churches,
Her white-gowned pederastic senators,
The cut-throat factions of her Hippodrome,
The eunuchs of her draped saloons.

By the time of the Emperor Justinian – we’re now in the 6th century AD – eunuchs were an integral part of Byzantine court life. Eugenius, the narrator of Graves’ 1938 novel Count Belisarius, though a slave himself, takes a certain pride in the influence of his fellow eunuchs:

It is a principle first learned by our Emperors from the Persian Court that eunuchs, since they are ineligible for sovereignty and incapable of founding dangerously powerful families, can safely be honoured with the royal confidence and used as a bulwark against the possible usurpation of the Throne by a conspiracy of powerful nobles. Eunuchs on the whole make milder and more loyal and more industrious officials than their unstoned colleagues, and their pettiness in routine matters – I do not deny the pettiness – is a strong conservative force. It has therefore long been the practice of rich middle-class families who have enough male children to carry on the line, deliberately to castrate one of the younger ones and dedicate him to a profitable career in the Civil Service. The bastard sons of Emperors too, or of their sons and daughters, are regularly castrated, in order to make useful citizens of them and prevent them from aspiring to the Throne. […]

Thus, to be a eunuch is, in the worldly sense at least, more of an advantage than a disadvantage, as may also be seen by a comparison of slave-market prices. A eunuch house-slave fetches three times the price of an unstoned one; he is worth only a little less than a trained house-physician or a skilled artisan. But a eunuch is seldom a happy man, because the operation has almost always been performed on him before the age of puberty, and he secretly imagines that to be a whole man is something very fine; if only because whole men are apt to jeer at eunuchs and to swear that they would rather be blind or dumb or deaf, or even all three of these things together, than debarred from the sweet and wholesome act of love. Naturally, the eunuch has a ready answer to such boasting: that sex is a madness and never brought anyone much luck. But secretly, as I confess, he is apt to envy the man who can take a woman to bed with him and do more than embrace her as a sister and chastely kiss her eyes.

Unlike Mary Renault, Graves evinces not the slightest interest in the sex life of his eunuch narrator. The passage above occurs during the introduction of the eunuch court chamberlain Narses – another real historical figure – who despite appearing in only a handful of scenes emerges as a more complete character than Eugenius.

When we meet him, Narses is already well advanced in years, a survivor of innumerable palace intrigues, a “dwarfish and repulsively ugly figure” acutely sensitive to slights, who harbours an unlikely aspiration to be taken seriously as a warrior. Antonina, wife to the celebrated general Belisarius, is one of the few to humour the ugly little man when he prattles about military tactics.

To widespread amusement, Narses later convinces the flighty Emperor Justinian to send him as general to Italy, to reinforce Belisarius in his war there against the Goths:

That he was dwarfish and big-buttocked and had a squint and a twisted lip had not seemed very ridiculous when he was gliding along the Palace corridors. … But to see Narses, who had already long passed the grand climacteric of his years, strutting about in the latest fashion of plate-armour … trailing a full-sized sword which was continually catching between his legs and tripping him up – that I assure you was a sight to raise a smile on the face of a man dying of the cholera.

The level-headed Antonina foresees that Narses might prove “a capable officer in spite of his age”, but warns her husband that his touchy personality will demand delicate handling. Her warning proves justified: the eunuch promptly quarrels with Belisarius and sows contention among the other generals, until Justinian is forced to recall him.

A dozen years later, after Belisarius has retired to Constantinople, Narses is again sent out by Justinian against the Goths, and by a series of brilliant victories reconquers Italy. Still later, annoyed once again over private slights, Narses intrigues with the Lombards, who go on to invade northern Italy, putting an end to Byzantine rule there.

***

Whereas Narses has plans and ambitions of his own, the narrator Eugenius is defined primarily by his utter devotion to Antonina, whose servant he has been since she was a child.

In creating his narrator, Graves had even less material to work with (or to constrain his imagination) than Renault did with Bagoas. In fact Eugenius appears only once in the historical record, in the lurid Secret History written by Procopius, who served as private secretary to Belisarius.

In that episode, Eugenius is enlisted in avenging an insult by some unfaithful slaves:

And they say that [Antonina] first cut out all their tongues, and then cut them up bit by bit, threw the pieces into sacks, and then without ado cast them into the sea, being assisted throughout in this impious business by one of the servants named Eugenius…

Note that Procopius never identifies Eugenius as a eunuch – that was Graves’ extrapolation. In fact, in the early stages of the writing of Count Belisarius, Antonina was intended as the narrator. Graves was convinced by his mistress and sometime collaborator Laura Riding to rewrite the early chapters in the slave’s voice, inspiring some prurient eyebrow-waggling over the parallels to the author’s own sex life:

It is often observed that Graves was in effect the devoted slave of Riding, which raises the possibility that he was Eugenius to her Antonina. … [I]t is known that Graves had embraced a life of celibacy for Riding. [2]

At any rate, Eugenius in Graves’ telling, like Bagoas in Mary Renault’s, is innocent of the atrocity attributed to him. Just as Alexander was libelled by jealous Greeks, so was Belisarius by his jealous secretary, Procopius:

Sometimes he told the truth, sometimes he distorted the facts, sometimes he lied – according to his vindictive purposes. (Even I, Eugenius, was introduced into this farrago: for example, I was supposed to have assisted my mistress in the murder of the maid Macedonia: whose tongue, he said, was cut in little pieces and cast into the sea.) [3]

However, Eugenius makes no bones about his involvement in another murder – that of a bishop, whose assassination he succesfully pins on an old rival of Antonina’s. In gratitude, Antonina offers to give him his freedom and a hefty reward besides. He humbly demurs:

“What is money but bodily comforts, which I already possess? What is ‘freedom’ but to be well considered, as I already am?”

Eugenius should have taken his freedom and retired somewhere far from the capital’s “cut-throat factions”; for not long afterward, the scandalous manuscript of Procopius comes to light, full of vile gossip not only about Belisarius and Antonina but about the Emperor Justinian. (In Graves’ interpretation, all the tales about his hero and heroine are malicious distortions, but all those about Justinian are true.)

To save his own skin, Procopius is induced to give false evidence against Belisarius, whom the emperor detests for his own petty reasons. Belisarius is charged with treason, and his household servants are seized and put to torture.

For a slave in such a situation, Eugenius knows, defiant silence is not a winning strategy:

Andreas died under the torture, but in order to vex [the public prosecutor] he did not utter a single cry. I yelled and screamed without ceasing. I knew that to do so would either satisfy the officer of the torture chamber or else disconcert him, so that he would say to the slave: “Enough for the moment, fellow: relax the cords, unscrew!” All my cries were: “Long life to his Gracious Majesty!” and “I know nothing, nothing.” So I escaped. Of the bodily injuries I received that day I shall not trouble you. I am a person of no importance.

M.

1. The real Phaedo, known as Phaedo of Elis, was – as you might suppose – from Elis, which fell to an alliance of Sparta and Athens a few years before Socrates’ death in 399 BC. In The Last of the Wine Renault moves Phaedo’s enslavement over a decade backward in time, to the middle of the Peloponnesian War, and makes him a victim of the most famous instance of Athenian ruthlessness in that conflict.

2. For more about Graves’ decision to make Eugenius and not Antonina his narrator, see “Count Belisarius – Genesis, Gender, and Truth” by Shaun Tougher. For Graves’ turbulent relationship with Laura Riding – “a woman of gargantuan and zany self-esteem who rivals the best of Dickens’ comic monsters in the splendor and variety of her awfulness” – this snappy book review by Thomas M. Disch covers the essentials.

3. Elsewhere in Count Belisarius, Eugenius denies his involvement in the murder of Antonina’s servant in slightly different words:

That my mistress with my help pulled out Macedonia’s tongue, cut her in pieces, and threw the pieces into the sea is a lie told many years later by the secretary Procopius to discredit her.

Whereas in the passage quoted above, it’s only Macedonia’s tongue that is chopped up. I can’t read the original Greek – which you can consult here – but I gather there’s some ambiguity in Procopius’ phrasing on this point. I can find three translations online:

It is said that she first cut out their tongues, and then ordered them to be hewn in pieces, put into sacks and thrown into the sea.
Athenian Society, 1896

She first cruelly cut out their tongues, it is said, and then cut their bodies into little bits which were put into sacks and thrown into the sea.
Richard Atwater, 1927

And they say that she first cut out all their tongues, and then cut them up bit by bit, threw the pieces into sacks, and then without ado cast them into the sea…
H.B. Dewing, 1935

In January I referred to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius in a discussion of Max Beerbohm and posterity. Years ago while reading The Last of the Wine I noticed that Mary Renault seemed to be the only person puzzled (like me) by the story of the Spartan boy and the fox. And speaking of “depictions of underage sexuality”, in 2018 I had some surprisingly deep thoughts about the Netflix cartoon series Big Mouth.

“Pardon me, madame, my name is Tarzan.”

As you might guess, The Return of Tarzan is the second book in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series.

If you jump right in thinking, “I know all about this Tarzan guy. Swings from vines. Wears a loincloth. Speaks broken English. I don’t need to bother with the first book,” you’re likely to be confused. The Return of Tarzan starts with Tarzan moping on an ocean liner in the manner of a disaffected earl in a Dorothy L. Sayers story:

Tarzan entered the smoking room, and sought a chair a little apart from the others who were there. He felt in no mood for conversation, and as he sipped his absinth he let his mind run rather sorrowfully over the past few weeks of his life….

He’ll do a good deal more moping in the course of the novel, but he’s never more than a page or two from having to leap into action to protect some innocent damsel. Before long he’s in Paris, thwarting a Russian spy ring and then enlisting in the French secret service.

tarzan hal foster

From the Tarzan comic strip, by Hal Foster.

2019 was the 20th anniversary of Disney’s Tarzan. Last summer a friend and I went to a special presentation at a theatre here in Vancouver, with one of the co-directors doing a Q&A before the movie.

My friend had never read any of the novels, so I told her some of the plot points that were abandoned during the adaptation from print to film, like the fact that Tarzan teaches himself to read and write (from his dead parents’ library) before he encounters any other humans – and that when he is finally taught to speak, his first language is French. So she skimmed the Wikipedia plot summary while we were waiting in line.

During the Q&A she stuck up her hand and said, “I was just reading the plot of the novel, and there’s some crazy stuff in there, like how Tarzan teaches himself to read, and how he goes to Wisconsin. Also I never realized Jane Porter was originally an American.”

“No, she–” said the director.

“Yeah, she–” said my friend.

“Was she? Well, anyway,” said the director, and then launched into a speech about how they’d resolved to disregard the books because of their racist depiction of Africans. My friend sank back into her seat. There was an awkward silence as the audience gauged how long they had to sit there deploring Edgar Rice Burroughs’ racism before they could safely change the subject to Rosie O’Donnell’s performance as a wacky gorilla.

I like Disney’s Tarzan, but it’s pretty morally simplistic compared to Burroughs’ version. The point of the books is that there’s a tradeoff between the harshness and purity of nature and the comforts and corruption of civilization. In the Disney world there’s no tradeoff – the gorillas are just as intelligent as the humans, and more civilized to boot. In the end Jane and Professor Porter decide to stay with Tarzan in the jungle, and why shouldn’t they? It looks like a lot of fun.

Burroughs’ Tarzan spends a good deal of his time brooding over how he fits into neither the savage nor the civilized world. He’s kind of a downer, but he beats up some bad guys every few pages so it’s okay.

M.

 

Max Beerbohm’s “A Clergyman” and posterity.

Every man illustrious in his day, however much he may be gratified by his fame, looks with an eager eye to posterity for a continuance of past favours, and would even live the remainder of his life in obscurity if by doing so he could insure that future generations would preserve a correct attitude towards him forever. This is very natural and human, but, like so many very natural and human things, very silly. [The dead] need not, after all, be pitied for our neglect of them. They either know nothing about it, or are above such terrene trifles.
–Max Beerbohm, “A Clergyman”.

A funny word, posterity. When we picture ourselves in relation to the flow of time, it’s with our faces thrust toward the future – toward posterity – and our posteriors toward the past. Those we describe as “backward” we imagine gazing adoringly at their antecedents while they retreat, as it were, into the future.

Posterity has two meanings, and it’s not always clear which is intended. It can refer to one’s direct descendants – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so forth – or it can refer more vaguely to everyone who comes after us, whether related to us or not.

Thus the conservative blogger Steve Sailer observes that when the Founding Fathers wrote in the preamble to the U.S. constitution that their intention was to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”, they had in mind chiefly the descendants of people then living in the United States; while the modern tendency is to interpret the passage as referring to the well-being of the people of the future more generally, including all those who aren’t Americans, but whose children or grandchildren might be, should one of them endeavour to splash across the Rio Grande.

Claudius, the narrator of I, Claudius by Robert Graves, seems to have the more expansive definition in mind when he imagines his readership of the inconceivably remote future. The stuttering Roman emperor, puzzled by a prophetic couplet declaring that he will “speak clear” in nineteen hundred years, concludes that the prophecy is

an injunction to write the present work. When it is written, I shall treat it with a preservative fluid, seal it in a lead casket, and bury it deep in the ground somewhere for posterity to dig up and read. If my interpretation be correct it will be found again some 1,900 years hence.

(On second thought, he reflects that his memoir may have a better chance of survival if he simply leaves it lying around unprotected: “Apollo has made the prophecy, so I shall let Apollo take care of the manuscript.”)

Knowing from the same prophecy that Rome is destined to fall long before his manuscript is recovered, Claudius writes not in Latin but in Greek, which he believes “will always remain the chief literary language of the world”. I have no idea what Greek word or phrase would be translated as “posterity”, but Google suggests απόγονοι (apogonoi), which I gather is the modern form of classical Greek επίγονοι (epigonoi), a word that carries its own hint of a double meaning: the Epigoni, meaning “later-born”, were the offspring of the legendary heroes known as the Seven Against Thebes. From them we derive the English word “epigone”, meaning an unworthy successor or imitator – a rather inapt commemoration for the Epigoni, who unlike their fathers actually succeeded in conquering Thebes. (Apparently a 19th century German novel was responsible for the shift in meaning.)

***

It’s common to observe that those with children of their own are more invested in the future than those without. That’s probably true, and yet I suspect it’s childless folks like me who spend more time thinking about posterity, precisely because we’re more self-absorbed: we’re more inclined to brood (because we have more free time in which to brood) over why we’re here, what was the point of it all, and what will survive of us after we’re gone.

As a backward-gazing person, I’ve always been interested in messages from the past to the future: time capsules, that sort of thing. My life has been too uneventful to make journal-keeping worthwhile, but for one whole calendar year – the year 2000 – I kept a journal, in which I looked back on the quarter of a century I’d then been alive, and speculated on what the next quarter-century would bring. On the last working day of the year I printed the journal, sealed it in a big envelope along with some photographs and letters (sealed already in smaller envelopes) that I’d solicited from friends, and mailed it to myself, to be opened in the year 2025.

time capsule 2000-2025

At the time, 2025 seemed nearly as remote to me as the 20th century must have seemed to Claudius – and yet here I am, already four-fifths of the way there. I’m curious to see what messages my friends enclosed for me, but I’m not exactly looking forward to re-reading my journal. I expect it to be quite depressing. Although I can’t remember precisely what in my mid-twenties I expected to achieve by my late forties, I know it was far more than I will actually have achieved. And I fear I have achieved so little precisely because I’m the kind of person who worries more about what the younger version of me would think of the current version, than about what the future version will think of himself.

As for what future generations will think of me: if for some reason you are reading this 1900 years in the future, I can only assume something has gone terribly wrong – an asteroid or nanobot swarm has wiped out all of earth’s literature, except for the contents of a single hard drive recovered from a tide-powered offshore server farm, kept in working order by a hereditary priesthood that has elevated my writings to the status of holy scripture. In that case, it’s only through my blog that knowledge of Shakespeare, Robert Heinlein, and Max Beerbohm has been preserved.

Sorry, 40th century digital monks: I know you’re dying to hear more about what a schmuck I was in my twenties, but I feel it’s my duty to preserve a few more fragments of Beerbohm…

***

In his touching essay from 1918, “A Clergyman”, Beerbohm draws our attention to a very peripheral character in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

Johnson and his amanuensis are visiting friends at their country villa when Boswell solicits the doctor’s opinion on “what were the best English sermons for style”. On this question, as on most, Johnson has strong opinions, and there follows a brief scene of Boswell lobbing out the names of then-celebrated ecclesiastics – Atterbury, Tillotson, Jortin, Smalridge – and Johnson flicking them aside with a word or two.

Finally another, previously unmentioned member of the party, whom Boswell describes merely as “a Clergyman, whose name I do not recollect”, pipes up to wonder, “Were not Dodd’s sermons addressed to the passions?”

To which Johnson replies, “They were nothing, Sir, be they addressed to what they may.”

On that abrupt note, the conversation ends, and the clergyman is never heard from again. Beerbohm alone marks his departure:

I know not which is the more startling – the debut of the unfortunate clergyman, or the instantaneousness of his end. Why hadn’t Boswell told us there was a clergyman present? … We may assume that in the minds of the company around Johnson he had no place. He sat forgotten, overlooked; so that his self-assertion startled every one just as on Boswell’s page it startles us. …

I see him as he sits there listening to the great Doctor’s pronouncement on Atterbury and those others. He sits on the edge of a chair in the background. … He has no positive intention of speaking. Very much, nevertheless, is he wishing in the back of his mind that he could say something – something whereat the great Doctor would turn on him and say, after a pause for thought, “Why yes, Sir. That is most justly observed” or “Sir, this has never occurred to me. I thank you” – thereby fixing the observer for ever high in the esteem of all. And now in a flash the chance presents itself. “We have,” shouts Johnson, “no sermons addressed to the passions that are good for anything.” I see the curate’s frame quiver with sudden impulse, and his mouth fly open, and – no, I can’t bear it, I shut my eyes and ears.

A sad fate for the unlucky clergyman; and yet thanks to Boswell’s and Beerbohm’s combined attentions, his sole recorded utterance still rouses the imaginative sympathies of 21st century readers. Can as much be said for whole volumes of Atterbury, Tillotson, Jortin, or Smalridge? They rose to the top of their profession, they inspired and instructed the rich and the worthy, their reputations were so great that Dr. Johnson could summarize their achievements in a word. And yet 150 years later their names communicated nothing but, as Beerbohm puts it, “a dim, composite picture of a big man in a big wig and a billowing black gown”.

He looks forward another 150 years and foresees readers being similarly unedified by a discussion of the famous authors of his own time – and indeed, of the seven names he mentions (Wells, Galsworthy, Mrs. Ward, Caine, Miss Corelli, Upton Sinclair, and Mrs. Glyn) as being comparable in stature, in his era, to Atterbury et al. in Johnson’s, I recognized only three. And it’s barely been a century. Another fifty years should see off the survivors.

By that time Beerbohm will also be forgotten, and with him the flickering shade of that nervous clergyman. But of the latter at least we can assume that he went to his rest confident that a more enduring afterlife awaited him – that he was “above such terrene trifles”.

If only we all could believe the same…

M.

“A Clergyman” inevitably brings to mind Beerbohm’s marvellous short story “Enoch Soames”, in which a talentless author of that name sells his soul to the devil to be transported a hundred years into the future – to the year 1997 – to see how posterity has treated him. I have previously referred to Dr. Johnson in a postscript to my reflections on growth vs. fixed mindset in 2017, and to Max Beerbohm in a discussion of the Italian actress Eleonora Duse a few weeks ago.

Assimilating strangeness.

Perhaps you saw or heard of a movie that came out earlier this year called Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle from a script by the noted schmaltzeur Richard Curtis.

Don’t worry if you missed it. The movie never lives up to its intriguing setup, wherein an obscure singer-songwriter gets bonked into an alternate universe where the Beatles never existed. He passes their songs off as his own, playing them at local pubs where at first they’re ignored and yelled over by indifferent yobs; but before long their greatness is recognized, and our hero shoots to Beatles-scale superstardom.

I realize it’s a romantic fantasy. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if the hero just went on getting yelled over by yobs until in frustration he gave up on the Beatles and resumed strumming his own mediocre stuff.

And yet I suspect that’s how the scenario would actually play out. In a world where the Beatles never happened, where popular music carried on evolving for another half-century unaffected by their influence, who knows what strange noises people would be listening to by now.

If by good luck the hero were as charismatic as the Beatles – and, um, he isn’t – he’d still have to overcome the disadvantage of sounding hopelessly out-of-fashion.

***

In Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence a middle-aged London stockbroker abandons his wife and children to move to Paris and take up painting. The established Bohemians sneer at Charles Strickland’s clumsy experiments, but he is as indifferent to their opinions as he is to the feelings of his discarded family and friends.

In his early years of self-exile, Strickland’s sole supporter is a fellow artist named Dirk Stroeve, who convinces a local gallery to display a few of the Englishman’s paintings. Stroeve reminds the skeptical proprietor that Monet, too, struggled at first to find buyers. The proprietor finds the parallel unsatisfactory:

“True. But there were a hundred as good painters as Monet who couldn’t sell their pictures at that time, and their pictures are worth nothing still. How can one tell? Is merit enough to bring success? Don’t believe it. Du reste, it has still to be proved that this friend of yours has merit. No-one claims it for him but Monsieur Stroeve.”

“And how, then, will you recognize merit?” asked Dirk, red in the face with anger.

“There is only one way – by success.”

Stroeve is convinced that Strickland’s genius will someday be recognized – and he turns out to be right. Merit shines through! However, Paris must be full of art lovers proclaiming this or that obscure painter a genius. Since no-one bothers to write books about the unfulfilled geniuses, only a few insiders, like the gallery owner, ever realize how many wrong predictions there are for every lucky strike.

Is it only by chance that Strickland’s paintings, and not those of one of his garret-dwelling rivals, caught the eye of some influential critic or tastemaker? Or was Stroeve right – was Strickland’s merit bound to be acknowledged eventually? We can’t see the paintings and judge for ourselves, but the narrator, when he is finally permitted by the moody artist to see them, tells us:

They seemed to me ugly, but they suggested without disclosing a secret of momentous significance. They were strangely tantalising. They gave me an emotion that I could not analyse. They said something that words were powerless to utter.

But he’s recording these impressions years afterward, by which time Strickland’s influence has diffused throughout the art world, making his aberrations commonplace, his crudities the new model of refinement. How many other ugly paintings has the narrator been strangely tantalized by, over the years, whose creators’ fame never glowed hotly enough to blast his formless impressions into solidity?

The Moon and Sixpence is loosely based on the scandalous life of Paul Gauguin. For the 1942 film version, which follows the novel fairly faithfully, the artist Dolya Goutman was hired to create Gauguinesque murals for the walls of Strickland’s cabin in Tahiti.

Here’s one patterned after Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

dolya goutman the moon and sixpence painting

Artwork by Dolya Goutman for The Moon and Sixpence.

We glimpse these murals for only a few moments, from the perspective of a doctor summoned to the bedside of the reclusive artist. Originally this scene was shown in Technicolor, in an otherwise black-and-white movie, to reflect the doctor’s awe and bemusement.

After Strickland’s death, his Tahitian mistress (in the movie, his legitimate wife; a detail altered to evade censorship) abides by his instructions and torches the cabin, destroying his final masterpieces. Maugham’s narrator isn’t surprised:

“He had achieved what he wanted. His life was complete. He had made a world and saw that it was good. Then, in pride and contempt, he destroyed it.”

***

Maugham’s unsettled reaction to Strickland’s paintings – “strangely tantalising” – reminded me of Harold Bloom, in his 1994 bestseller The Western Canon, attempting to single out the quality that elevates a work of literature to canonical status:

The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.

Indulge me as I make a fool of myself attempting to argue with Harold Bloom. As I understand it, his primary contribution to the lexicon of literary criticism was “the anxiety of influence”, the theory that great writers produce great art by an “agonistic” process (“agon” being Bloom’s favourite word) of “creatively misreading” their great predecessors:

Tradition is not only a handing-down or process of benign transmission; it is also a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.

So, in Bloom’s view, it’s not enough for us to pluck up some obscure minority writer of the 19th century and declare her to be canonical. The canon was built up by generations of writers grinding the works of earlier writers through their own imaginations, depositing the results in new layers of sediment which subsequent writers then sifted and rearranged.

The canon isn’t set by professors of literature, let alone by education bureaucrats; all they can do is poke around in the mound with the rest of us and argue about whether this bit of Bellow is two-thirds Dickens and one-third Whitman or the reverse.

In the above metaphor, inclusion in the mound may be decided in large part by chance. That minority writer of the 19th century might have been read more widely, might have influenced slightly younger writers, who might have passed her influence down through the years to us – but she was overlooked; maybe because people of her era were terrible racist snobs, or maybe because they just didn’t think she was very good. If a single critic had descried genius in her work, and swayed others to the same view, the mound might have taken a slightly different shape, and our notions of genius would today be subtly different.

But Bloom doesn’t care for contingency. He prefers to believe that when 17th century audiences elevated Shakespeare over his peers as the preeminent English dramatist, and that when over subsequent centuries the non-English-speaking world was gradually convinced of Shakespeare’s primacy, they were responding to some innate greatness in his writing. He dismisses as “resentment” the argument that another figure could have occupied the central place in the canon:

Clearly this line of inquiry begins to border on the fantastic; how much simpler to admit that there is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind, between Shakespeare and every other writer, even Chaucer, even Tolstoy, or whoever.

Well, maybe. As I’ve previously admitted, I have a hard time following Shakespeare at his knottiest, and am probably therefore missing a lot. But the parts that I can follow, while written in what even a dope like me can recognize as wondrously inventive English, seem nevertheless to dissipate an awful lot of their wonder in absurd plots, wearisome digressions, and prolonged anticlimaxes.

To repeat, I’m a dope. But even Harold Bloom, no dope, acknowledges the weaknesses in what he considers Shakespeare’s greatest play, King Lear:

[Edgar] maintains all his disguises long after they could have been discarded. His refusal to reveal himself to Gloucester until just before he anonymously goes forth to cut down Edmund is as curious as Shakespeare’s refusal to dramatize the scene of revelation and reconciliation between father and son. We hear Edgar’s narrative of the scene, but we are denied the scene itself.

If you haven’t read Lear in a while, Gloucester is the credulous old duffer who gets his eyes plucked out through the connivance of his wicked bastard son Edmund. His legitimate son, Edgar, a fugitive hiding in plain view as a crazy homeless guy, takes up with his father when he finds him wandering eyeless on the heath, but keeps up the crazy act even when there’s no-one else around – for no apparent reason, other than to crank up the pathos.

gloucester and edgar by h.c. selous

Edgar and Gloucester in King Lear.
Illustrator H.C. Selous, engraver Frederick Wentworth.
From The Plays of William Shakespeare, Cassell & Company, 1864-68.

At the climax of the play Edgar turns up, still incognito, and fatally wounds Edmund. His speech afterward, explaining where he’s been and what became of their father, takes up nineteen lines, concluding:

…some half-hour past, when I was arm’d:
Not sure, though hoping, of this good success,
I ask’d his blessing, and from first to last
Told him my pilgrimage: but his flaw’d heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support!
‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.

So the old man died offstage, and that’s the last we hear of him.

Bloom attempts to justify this unsatisfying development as an instance of Shakespeare’s dramatic subtlety:

Perhaps Shakespeare kept the death of Gloucester offstage so that the contrast between the dying Lear and the dying Edmund would retain all of its pungency.

Look, there may be a slight gap in talent separating me from Shakespeare – but I, too, am an author. I wrote a whole novel. It took me the better part of three years, and it was unpublishable. A year later it occurred to me that I’d failed to flesh out several vital scenes, and I devoted additional weeks to revisions. It ended up just as unpublishable as before.

As Bloom mentions, Shakespeare never bothered to proofread most of his works before publication. There are two distinct texts of King Lear, which later editors mashed together into the play we’re acquainted with. If after writing Lear Shakespeare had had nothing better to do than brood over its shortcomings, he might have been inspired to do as I did: go back in and smooth over the lumpy bits. But he was busy writing Macbeth.

Probably, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, any revisions he made would have been for the better. But suppose we were bonked into the alternate universe where, rather than dashing off thirty-seven plays, [1] heedlessly flicking the finished pages over his shoulder, Shakespeare had crafted a mere dozen, pouring every ounce of his energy and concentration into perfecting each one.

In that case he probably wouldn’t have gotten around to Lear, or for that matter Hamlet or Othello or Macbeth. He’d have been too busy polishing Romeo and Juliet to an unfathomably high gleam. Audiences hungry for fresh content would have turned to some other, less fastidious author – Ben Jonson, maybe – to supply their wants, with who knows what effects on the shape and composition of the canonical mound.

High-gleam Shakespeare might turn out to be a bit of a bummer, anyway. The absurdities and anticlimaxes that strike me as byproducts of haste may after all have been deliberate choices. Even on a second look, Shakespeare might have left them untouched, and spent his time polishing away all the hijinks and rude humour that modern audiences love.

M.

1. My Collected Works of William Shakespeare, inherited from my father, contains thirty-seven plays. Since my dad’s youth five additional titles have crept into the oeuvre: two lost plays and three previously unrecognized collaborations. This is very annoying. I have elected to ignore the latecomers.

H.C. Selous, illustrator of the Edgar and Gloucester scene above, was previously featured in my post on scary pictures in Pilgrim’s Progress. I don’t seem to have mentioned Harold Bloom before, but I have written about that other curmudgeonly defender of the Western cultural heritage, Allan “no relation” Bloom.

Eleonora Duse: “I had the feeling that I understood every word.”

Early in Robert Heinlein’s 1958 sci-fi adventure novel Have Space Suit – Will Travel we meet a lemur-like alien called the Mother Thing, whose language resembles the “endlessly varied songs of a mockingbird”.

When she is introduced to Kip, our youthful hero, he is surprised to realize that he understands her twitterings:

I would have been an idiot not to know that the Mother Thing was speaking to me because I did understand and understood her every time. If she directed a remark at Peewee alone, it was usually just birdsongs to me – but if it was meant for me, I got it.

Call it telepathy if you like … I never read her mind and I don’t think she read mine. We just talked.

As Kip, Peewee, and the Mother Thing are in the middle of escaping from some nasty space pirates, he is obliged to postpone examination of the mystery. Later, on the Mother Thing’s homeworld in the Vega system, Kip finds that he is able to communicate, though somewhat less consistently, with others of her species. He theorizes:

The Vegans have a supreme talent to understand, to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. I don’t think it was telepathy, or I wouldn’t have gotten so many wrong numbers. Call it empathy.

… I once read about an actress who could use Italian so effectively to a person who did not understand Italian that she always made herself understood. Her name was “Duce”. No, a “duce” is a dictator. Something like that. She must have had what the Mother Thing had.

I had never heard of this legendarily expressive Italian actress, but Heinlein’s story bumped along so irresistibly that within a couple pages I’d forgotten my vague intention of looking her up. It was only by chance that a few days later, in an essay by the novelist and critic Max Beerbohm – whom I’ll return to later – I came across the name Eleonora Duse.

While her elder rival Sarah Bernhardt to this day occupies a small but lively alcove in the popular imagination, Duse has been pretty much forgotten by everyone except historians of the theatre. But to American writers of Heinlein’s generation her name would still have been familiar. From the 1890s until the rise of silent pictures, the Italian Duse contended with the French Bernhardt for the position of world’s most famous actress. At the height of her fame she toured the United States and, at a time when actors were still seen as a tad declassé, was hosted by Grover and Mrs. Cleveland in the White House. Later she had the mixed luck – bad for her, but good for her American reputation – to die in Pittsburgh.

In an 1895 essay George Bernard Shaw commemorated an unusual head-to-head acting battle between Bernhardt and Duse when, in the same week, in competing West End theatres, they performed the same role in the same play. In Shaw’s judgement, the contest wasn’t even close:

[Bernhardt]’s stock of attitudes and facial effects could be catalogued as easily as her stock of dramatic ideas: the counting would hardly go beyond the fingers of both hands. Duse produces the illusion of being infinite in variety of beautiful pose and motion. Every idea, every shade of thought and mood, expresses itself delicately but vividly to the eye; and yet, in an apparent million of changes and inflexions, it is impossible to catch any line of an awkward angle, or any strain interfering with the perfect abandonment of all the limbs to what appears to be their natural gravitation towards the finest grace.

What’s noteworthy about the above review is that Shaw doesn’t see it as necessary to mention that the parallel productions were in, respectively, French and Italian – for Bernhardt and Duse performed only in their native tongues.

Most educated Londoners of Shaw’s era would have been (like Shaw) literate in French – though not in Italian. But an inability to follow the dialogue wasn’t seen as an obstacle, in those days, to relishing a performance by a foreign touring company. The modern reader will no doubt share my dubiety at this anecdote from one of Bernhardt’s tours of the American West:

On February 22, 1913, she performed for the two thousand-odd inmates of California’s San Quentin state prison a one-act drama, Une Nuit de Noël sous la Terreur (“A Christmas Night under the Terror”). “For an hour,” read a letter from the prisoners, “through your wondrous personality and entrancing art we have been, in soul and in mind, at perfect liberty – captive only of that remarkable force and fire which have made men call you divine…”

Yes, the inmates wrote those words, so transported were they by this sixty-nine year old Frenchwoman’s performance, in French, of an hour-long play about the French Revolution.

As for the legend of Eleonora Duse, that she could make herself understood even to non-speakers of Italian, it gets some support from Anton Chekhov, who wrote after seeing her in St. Petersburg:

I don’t understand Italian, but she played so beautifully that I had the feeling I understood every word. A remarkable actress. I’ve never seen anything like it.

On the other hand, Max Beerbohm, who saw Duse in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 1903, argued that the rapture that had greeted her performance was insincere:

[It would] be an impossible feat not to be bored by the Italian version of Hedda Gabler. Why not confess your boredom? … [T]here seems to me no form of humbug sillier or more annoying than the habit of attending plays that are acted in a language whereof one cannot make head nor tail.

Beerbohm attempts to project himself into the minds of those who pursue such masochistic pleasures:

Perhaps they really do feel that they are taking a means of edification. “We needs must praise the highest when we see it”; Duse is (we are assured) the highest; therefore we needs must see her, for our own edification, and go into rhapsodies. Such, perhaps, is the unsound syllogism which these good folk mutter. I suggest, of what spiritual use is it to see the highest if you cannot understand it?

…And goes on to imagine the mesmerized playgoer flapping away self-doubts:

“Oh, Duse’s personality is so wonderful. Her temperament is so marvellous. And then her art! It doesn’t matter whether we know Italian or not. We only have to watch the movements of her hands” (rhapsodies omitted) “and the changes of her face” (r. o.) “and the inflections of her voice” (r. o.) “to understand everything, positively everything.” Are you sure? I take it that you understand more from the performance of an Italian play which you have read in an English translation than from the performance of an Italian play which never has been translated. There are, so to say, degrees in your omniscience. You understand more if you have read the translation lately than if a long period has elapsed since your reading of it. Are you sure that you would not understand still more if the play were acted in English?

Setting the language question aside, Beerbohm proceeds to doubt Duse’s heretofore unchallenged acting chops. While Shaw had asserted that “behind every stroke of [Duse’s acting] is a distinctively human idea”, the trouble as Beerbohm saw it was that those human ideas had little connection to the characters they were meant to vivify:

I have seen her in many parts, but I have never (you must take my evidence for what it is worth) detected any difference in her. To have seen her once is to have seen her always. She is artistically right or wrong according as whether the part enacted by her can or cannot be merged and fused into her own personality.

And he closes by complaining that throughout the performance of Hedda Gabler he could hear Duse’s prompter hissing her lines to her, “like the continuous tearing of very thick silk”.

Duse’s genius, if such it were, is lost to us. A proposed collaboration with the American director D.W. Griffith never got off the ground. A recording of her voice made by Thomas Edison in 1896 was somehow misplaced. The only extant record of her acting is a silent film called Cenere, from 1916, when she was fifty-eight years old and in semi-retirement. Surviving prints are extremely degraded. The intertitles are in Italian. I couldn’t sit through it.

For whatever reason, Duse’s stage persona was electrifying to turn-of-the-century audiences. But the notion that she could dissolve the language barrier by force of charisma, or emotional expressiveness, or body language, or what-have-you, I think we can consign to the realm of science-fiction.

M.

In previous essays I’ve discussed G.B. Shaw’s Saint Joan (and the toleration of heresy) and Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky (and the demographic death-spiral).

The Far Country: The case for (and against) emigration.

With its generic title and un-grabby premise – English girl goes to Australia, falls in love – I doubt anyone besides Nevil Shute completists is reading his 1952 novel The Far Country these days. I enjoyed it, but I concede that it’s a tad lacking in dramatic incident. When in the 1980s it was made into an Australian TV miniseries – which I haven’t seen – the writers seem to have thought it necessary to crank up the melodrama by adding controversy over the Czech love interest’s wartime service as a doctor with the German army.

In the book, no-one is the least bit bothered about this. The English girl’s Aussie relatives express some misgivings about her gadding about with a dark-complexioned older man, but only because they’re afraid her folks back home will be prejudiced against foreigners. It’s strange. In the immediate aftermath of the war, when ordinary Brits and Aussies would have had ample justification for hating their former foes, it didn’t occur to Shute that his hero would be affected by such resentment. Thirty-odd years later, the creators of the miniseries assumed that the doctor’s Nazi guilt needed to be addressed.

Like In the Wet, Shute’s epic of electoral reform from the following year, The Far Country contrasts the war-exhausted, ration-stinted Old World with the optimism and expansiveness of the Antipodes. The heroine’s destitute grandmother receives £500 from a well-off niece in Australia, but it arrives too late to save the old lady from the effects of her meagre diet. On her deathbed she conveys the money to her granddaughter, Jennifer, with the stipulation that she should use it to emigrate from dreary, declining Britain.

Jennifer is inclined to ignore her grandmother’s directive and return the money to its sender. A few days later, at the government office where she’s employed as a typist, someone mentions a nephew who is prospering in Canada. A socialist co-worker gripes about the consequences of permitting such emigration:

“It’s not right, the way these young chaps go abroad,” said Sanders. “If it goes on, the Government will have to put a stop to it.”

I wasn’t sure about this character. Even in idle break-room chit-chat, would an idealistic leftist of the early 1950s have entertained the idea of restricting emigration? Or was this just Shute venting his ire at socialist control-freakery? [1]

But it wasn’t only those on the left who were concerned at the loss of British manpower. From an article by Murray Watson, co-author of a book on English immigrants to Canada: [2]

In the years after the war more than 2 million people emigrated from the United Kingdom. Such was the scale of population loss that wartime leader Winston Churchill feared those leaving would hamper post-war recovery. He issued a patriotic appeal on the BBC:

“I say to those that wish to leave our country, ‘Stay here and fight it out.’ If we work together with brains and courage, as we did in days not long ago, we can make our country fit for all our people. Do not desert the old land.”

Shute’s break-room socialist gives Churchill’s appeal an internationalist twist:

“[W]hat this country has tried to do, and what it’s doing, is to plan a new form of government and put it into practice, a new form of democracy where everyone will get a square deal. When we’ve shown it can be done, the world will copy it, all right. You see. But it can’t be worked out if people are allowed to run away to other countries. It’s their job to stay here and get this one right.” [3]

A level-headed accountant named Morrison joins the debate, asking Jennifer to consider the cost of her upbringing:

“For eighteen years somebody in this country fed you and clothed you and educated you before you made any money, before you started earning. Say you cost an average two quid a week for that eighteen years. You’ve cost England close on two thousand pounds to produce.”

Somebody said, “Like a machine tool.”

“That’s right,” the accountant said, “a human dictaphone and typewriter combined, all electronic and maintains itself and does its own repairs, that’s cost two thousand quid. Suppose you go off to Canada. You’re an asset worth two thousand quid that England gives to Canada as a free gift. If a hundred thousand like you were to go each year, it would be like England giving Canada a subsidy of two million pounds a year. It’s got to be thought about, this emigration. We can’t afford to go chucking money away like that.”

She said, puzzled, “It’s not really like that, is it?”

“It is and all,” said Morrison. “That’s what built up the United States. Half a million emigrants a year went from Central Europe to America for fifty years or so. Say they were worth a thousand quid apiece. Right – that was a subsidy from Central Europe to America of five hundred million quid a year, and it went on for fifty years or so. Human bulldozers.”

He leaned forward on the table. “Believe it or not,” he said, “Central Europe got very poor and the U.S.A. got very rich.”

Jennifer is so annoyed by the whole discussion that she decides to take her grandmother’s advice after all. She books passage for Australia.

Is it true that the Old World is poorer for the loss of generations of human capital to Australia, Canada, and the United States? Unsurprisingly, things were tight just after the war, when most of Europe’s savings had just been spent on obliterating much of Europe’s infrastructure. But by the 1970s or thereabouts, the continent – at least the half of it that wasn’t stuck under Communist rule – had rebuilt, living standards had rebounded, and the emigration slowed to a trickle.

Would Europe have recovered more quickly if emigrants like Shute’s hero and heroine had remained, their “brains and courage” helping to increase productivity? Or did their departure contribute to the rising standard of living, bleeding off surplus population and thus helping to keep the cost of housing low and wages high?

In his podcast last year, John Derbyshire scoffed at Nancy Pelosi’s contention that a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border was “immoral”. Pointing to news reports indicating that “There are more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago than in Ethiopia” and that “Half of Romania’s doctors left the country between 2009 and 2015”, he wondered:

Don’t those people’s home countries need their bright, educated, accomplished citizens way more than we do? Could someone please ask moralist-in-chief Nancy Pelosi about this?

I doubt that Derbyshire, a cantankerous immigration foe, really worries that the United States is enriching itself at the developing world’s expense. He would probably argue that migration is a lose-lose proposition: it weakens the source countries by robbing them of their smartest and most ambitious citizens, and weakens the destination countries by afflicting them with overcrowding, linguistic confusion, and interethnic squabbling.

One could also argue that migration is win-win: that teeming poor countries benefit by sending abroad workers who are unlikely to find an outlet for their talents at home, and that rich countries benefit by the infusion of energetic, ambitious young people. This would presumably be Nancy Pelosi’s view.

My own view is somewhere in between. Some people – habitual criminals, mental defectives, and unemployables – are a drain on whichever country they live in. If a poor country can guilt some rich country into taking these people off its hands, why not? For the rich country, it might be worthwhile to take in ninety-nine slackers and thugs on the chance of nabbing a single undiscovered genius whose ideas will generate enough wealth to maintain all the others. But if you can figure out how to get the one genius without taking the other ninety-nine, why not try that instead?

But why does the west feel it necessary to import Ethiopian and Romanian doctors at all? Medicine is a high-paying, high-prestige career, yet for some reason we can’t turn out enough young doctors to meet demand. Are salaries too low? Working conditions too gruelling? Is the high cost of education putting young people off? It can’t be the last: more people are getting advanced degrees than ever before. Wouldn’t it be less trouble to Tiger Mother an extra two or three percent of those high-achievers into med school than to relocate the finest young minds of Addis Ababa and Bucharest halfway around the world to tend our aging, flabby selves?

As it happens, Romanian doctors come up in The Far Country. The Czech hero, Zlinter, is unable to practice medicine in Australia as his credentials aren’t recognized. He can’t afford the three years of additional schooling he’d need to re-qualify, and as he’s happy enough doing manual labour, he’s resigned himself to never being a doctor again. Jennifer protests:

“But what an idiotic regulation!” the girl said.

He looked at her, smiling at her indignation for him. “It is not so idiotic,” he said. “There must be some rule. The doctors from some countries are ver’ bad. I would not like you to be treated by a Roumanian doctor, or a doctor from Albania.”

Working as a lumberman deep in the bush, Zlinter steps up to perform an emergency operation when two of his co-workers are injured in a gruesome accident. This incident attracts the attention of the authorities, who investigate the foreigner for practicing medicine without a licence. His friends and colleagues, resenting this intrusion by big-city bureaucrats, come to the Czech’s defence, but an Australian doctor named Jennings puts the case for caution:

“You’ve got to have a rule,” Jennings said. “Most of these D.P. doctors are crook doctors, oh, my word. You’d be the first to scream if some of them got loose on your family. …Take this Zlinter, for example. He seems to be a careful sort of chap, and since he qualified he’s had a very wide experience of surgery in front-line conditions with the German army. You’ve seen him at his best. He certainly knows a lot about these sort of accidents. But that’s not general practice. Ninety per cent of the general practitioner’s job is trying to decide if an old lady’s pain is heart trouble or wind, or whether a kiddy’s got scarlet fever or a sore throat. Zlinter may be useless at that sort of thing – probably is.”

He paused. “I don’t want you to think I’m against Zlinter,” he said. “I think he’s a good man. If he was qualified I’d like to see him practice in this district and take some of the work off me. But not before he’s been checked over at the hospital and been passed out as competent.”

Seems sensible enough. But I suspect no modern doctor would speak so forthrightly. Shute was writing in the unenlightened age before the benefits of diversity had been revealed to our governing class. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has put it:

[O]ur diversity isn’t a challenge to be overcome or a difficulty to be tolerated. Rather, it’s a tremendous source of strength. … Canada has succeeded – culturally, politically, economically – because of our diversity, not in spite of it.

If such assertions are meant to be taken literally, it follows that even if your Romanian or Albanian doctor turns out to be a bit “crook” (by which Dr. Jennings meant incompetent, not dishonest), the workforce-enriching effects of added diversity should more than compensate for any niggling increase in miscommunication, misdiagnosis, and malpractice.

As for Romania and Albania, today’s wisdom would tell them that instead of vainly attempting to coax their disillusioned professionals into remaining, they should look to even poorer countries – say, Mali or Mozambique – for doctors willing to bring to Eastern Europe the tremendous strength of their diversity. Meanwhile, Australia and Canada will go on sending their idealistic young doctors to do aid work in Mali and Mozambique, completing the cycle.

M.

1. Although Britons were never prevented from transporting their expensively-nurtured selves abroad, the Exchange Controls Act limited how much of their wealth they could take with them. At the time Shute was writing, emigrants to the United States and Canada could bring along only £1000; the remainder of their fortune had to be invested with an “authorised depositary” in the U.K. Even vacationers could take just £25 a year across the border. These rules wouldn’t have impacted Jennifer’s Australia trip, as they didn’t apply to the countries in the “sterling area” that used the pound as a reserve currency. (See the Bank of England’s “The U.K. Exhange Control: A Short History”.)

2. Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945, by Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson.

3. I can find no evidence that the U.K. has ever entertained the idea of restricting emigration. But earlier this year the Guardian reported the results of a European Council on Foreign Relations poll showing that majorities in Spain, Greece, and Italy – and near-majorities in Poland and Hungary – would support their citizens being “prevented from leaving the country for long periods of time”.

I’ve written about, let’s see…four of Nevil Shute’s books now. John Derbyshire I last mentioned in an essay on the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. Justin Trudeau came up just a few weeks ago, when I compared him to a “second-rate game show host”.

The media vs. the populists, Jazz Age edition: Mencken vs. Bryan.

Re-reading Paul Johnson’s book of 20th century history Modern Times I found the following nuggets which, if I’d come across them a few weeks earlier, I would have incorporated into my essay on the mutating definition of “populism”.

The first concerns William Jennings Bryan, whom Johnson describes as “the hate-figure of the East Coast highbrows in the Twenties”. By that decade the ex-Nebraska congressman, ex-Secretary of State, and three-time losing Democratic presidential candidate (in 1896, 1900, and 1908) was known primarily as the champion of the anti-Darwinist side in 1925’s Scopes Monkey Trial.

In the most famous fictionalization of that event, 1960’s Inherit the Wind, Fredric March plays “Matthew Harrison Brady” as a puffed-up backwoods pulpit-banger easily tied in knots by Spencer Tracy’s skeptical defense attorney.

In Johnson’s telling, Bryan wasn’t opposed to the teaching of evolution per se, he only believed that it should be presented as theory rather than as settled fact. The Tennessee law under which biology teacher John Scopes was charged was more restrictive than Bryan personally preferred; nevertheless he joined the prosecution to affirm the power of elected legislators to determine which doctrines were taught in public schools, and the duty of teachers to respect those democratic decisions.

Bryan’s closing argument supports Johnson’s interpretation:

A teacher can think as he pleases and worship God as he likes, or refuse to worship God at all. He can believe in the Bible or discard it; he can accept Christ or reject Him. This law places no obligations or restraints upon him. And so with freedom of speech; he can, so long as he acts as an individual, say anything he likes on any subject. This law does not violate any right guaranteed by any constitution to any individual. It deals with the defendant, not as an individual, but as an employee, an official or public servant, paid by the state, and therefore under instructions from the state.

(Bryan was denied a chance to deliver this statement, as Scopes’ defense team opted to change his plea to guilty in order to facilitate an appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court.)

Johnson rues the manner in which Bryan’s bible-thumping reputation has eclipsed his other accomplishments:

Fundamentally, Bryan’s aims were democratic and progressive: he fought for women’s suffrage and a federal income-tax and reserve-bank, for popular election to the Senate, for the publication of campaign contributions, for freeing the Philippines, and for the representation of labour in the cabinet. Yet his values were popular ones or, to use the new term of derogation, “populist”; he spoke the language of anti-intellectualism. His wife’s diaries testify to the bitterness the couple felt at the way his work was misrepresented or completely ignored in the “Eastern press”.

When Bryan died just a few days after the end of the Scopes trial, the era’s most famous journalist, Baltimore’s H.L. Mencken (whose Inherit the Wind alter ego was played by Gene Kelly), felt no need to soft-pedal his scorn:

In the presence of city folks [Bryan] was palpaby uneasy. Their clothes, I suspect, annoyed him, and he was suspicious of their too delicate manners. He knew all the while that they were laughing at him – if not at his baroque theology, then at least at his alpaca pantaloons. But the yokels never laughed at him. …

His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at [the Scopes trial], that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and beautiful things. … He was born with a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits. His whole career was devoted to raising those half-wits against their betters, that he himself might shine.

This is pretty harsh, but only a bit harsher than the acid Mencken poured over every other politician. They were all mediocrities of one stripe or another, elevated by the risible doctrine of democracy:

If x is the population of the United States and y is the degree of imbecility of the average American, then democracy is the theory that x × y is less than y.

As the chosen figurehead of all these imbeciles, the president was necessarily the primary target of Mencken’s ire: at the time of the Scopes trial that was Calvin Coolidge. Only after the laconic Vermont Republican was safely buried could Mencken admit that he had delivered the least and therefore best one could reasonably expect from a politician:

Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant? There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.

Herbert Hoover, who had the bad luck to inherit the presidency from Coolidge a few months before the stock market crash of 1929, is remembered now as a do-nothing who ignored the suffering unleashed by the Great Depression. His successor Franklin Roosevelt is credited with taking the belated action that helped America struggle back to its feet.

In fact, Johnson argues, there wasn’t much distance between these two World Savers on questions of policy, although in fighting the 1932 election they strove to exaggerate their areas of disagreement. He quotes Roosevelt:

“Never before in modern history have the essential differences between the two major American parties stood out in such striking contrast as they do today.” It was all baloney. It illustrates the degree to which oratory engenders myths and myths, in turn, breed realities.

Johnson contends that a Coolidgean restraint would have led to a much faster recovery, while Hoover’s and Roosevelt’s eagerness to be seen doing something added up to a lot of useless tinkering that prolonged the pain. Hoover tinkered through the worst of the collapse, which found its nadir near the end of his term. By the time Roosevelt took office there was nowhere for the economy to go but up, and his tinkering was given credit for the recovery. The transfer of political power from Republican to Democrat in 1932 was less significant than the cultural realignment:

But it was only in 1932 that the Republicans finally lost the Progressive image they had enjoyed since Lincoln’s day and saw it triumphantly seized by their enemies, with all that such a transfer involves in the support of the media, the approval of academia, the patronage of the intelligentsia and, not least, the manufacture of historical orthodoxy.

Uncowed by the new orthodoxy, Mencken loosed on FDR and his “puerile amalgam of exploded imbecilities” the same stream of hilarious invective he’d aimed at previous occupants of the White House:

The New Deal began like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flophouses and disturbing the peace.

But the intelligentsia that had whooped at his assaults on Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover now mumbled their embarrassed disapproval. “The only consequence of these diatribes,” says Johnson, “was that Mencken forfeited his influence with anyone under thirty.” In his diary, Mencken groused philosophically:

On the ultimate fate of my writings I sometimes speculate idly. At the moment, with the Roosevelt crusade to save humanity in full blast, my ideas are so unpopular that it is impossible … to print them. But when the New Deal imposture blows up at last, as it is sure to do soon or late, they may have a kind of revival.

While a writer as abundantly quotable as Mencken could never be forgotten entirely, in the long run his pungent rhetoric, which did so much to sink William Jennings Bryan in the public’s esteem, may drag its author to even deeper abysms of infamy. After all, a “poor clod … deluded by a childish theology” can perhaps be given a pass on grounds of ignorance; but as Mencken clearly possessed a high and discerning intelligence, no mitigation can be extended for the many truculent comments, shocking to modern sensibilities, which can be plucked from his vast, diverse, and self-contradictory output.

When some of these unpalatable comments came to light with the release of Mencken’s diaries in 1989, the “over-reaction” was pooh-poohed by a coalition of old-school liberal intellectuals. In the Twitter era, it has mainly been anti-evolution polemicists who have taken the trouble to subject Mencken’s work to thorough offense-mining. But over on the other side of William Jenning Bryan’s intellectual lineage – the sour-faced progressive side – they’re bound to notice one of these days that dirt-poor Scotch-Irish hill-folk weren’t the only targets of Mencken’s down-punching.

As for Bryan, his reputation might yet recover. Hostility to scientific research into heredity seems to be growing on the left, and for pretty much the same reason Bryan opposed Darwinism: because he thought it would lead on to Social Darwinism and eventually to eugenics.

(As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, “Mencken shared the same opinion but with more gusto. He truly believed that it was a waste of time and energy for the fit to succor the unfit.”)

In this review of Robert Plomin’s Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, the author accuses “hereditarian” pop-science authors of “leveraging the cultural authority of science to advance a discredited, undemocratic agenda”. It’s a phrase that could have come out of Bryan’s closing argument at the Scopes trial, if the verb “to leverage” had existed at that time. He phrased it a little more elegantly:

[W]hat else but the spirit of evolution can account for the popularity of the selfish doctrine, “Each one for himself, and the devil take the hindmost,” that threatens the very existence of the doctrine of brotherhood.

In Inherit the Wind the Bryan stand-in is made to piously bluster that he is “not the least interested in the pagan hypotheses” of Charles Darwin; that he has never read On the Origin of Species, “and I never will”.

Back here in the real world, it’s clear from Bryan’s closing statement that he had researched his foe. He plucks from Darwin’s The Descent of Man the well-known passage which gave inspiration to the era’s eugenicists:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. … Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Bryan was quick to acknowledge that Darwin’s “kindly heart rebelled against the cruelty of his own doctrine”; but he foresaw that less amiable thinkers would follow Darwinism’s logic to its ghastly end, ushering in an age of cruelty, war, and sanitary murder. Non-Christians (like me) might object to the claim in his peroration that if civilization is to be preserved, it can only be “by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene.” But it doesn’t subtract one whit from Darwin’s genius to agree with Bryan that:

Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessels.

M.

This is the third in a series on populism that began with my review of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s One Canada and continued with last month’s discussion of Diefenbaker, Trudeau, Trump, and Jane Jacobs. In the novel Job: A Comedy of Justice, summarized in my essay on Robert Heinlein’s Crazy Years, a parallel-universe America where William Jennings Bryan won the presidency has become a technologically stunted backwater run by witch-burners.

John Diefenbaker’s One Canada.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s memoir One Canada was published in three volumes between 1975 and 1977. My boxed set was inscribed to me by the ex-PM on April 8th, 1979, when he was in negotiations with my father to narrate a series of radio vignettes about famous Native Canadians. I wasn’t present; I had just turned three. Diefenbaker died that summer, putting an end to the idea.

I wrote a couple years back about my “dad books” – the ten to twenty percent of my library that I inherited from my father and have kept around less out of enthusiasm than out of a sense of filial duty. The three volumes of One Canada were my last unread dad books. Politicians’ memoirs are not a genre of particular interest to me.

However, I feel a personal connection to Diefenbaker, not only through his slight acquaintance with my father but because of my Saskatchewan upbringing. I grew up in Prince Albert, the town where Diefenbaker settled in the 1920s and which he represented in parliament from 1952 until the end of his life. Many of the minor figures mentioned in the first volume of One Canada I recognize from the names of streets and civic buildings in Prince Albert and Saskatoon. From grade three to seven I attended John Diefenbaker School. On visits home I fly into Diefenbaker International Airport.

As for his politics, before reading his memoir I knew three things about Diefenbaker’s career:

  1. That his government had extended to all adult Native Canadians the right to vote. (Which is why he was a logical choice to narrate those radio vignettes. I’m sure my father also would’ve found some way to work in Diefenbaker’s nickname, The Chief.)
  2. That at the peak of Cold War nuclear tensions, his government had initiated a program of civil defence that involved mobilizing the Canadian Militia (known today as the Army Reserve), of which my father was, as a young man, a member. This program’s most, ahem, concrete result was the so-called Diefenbunker, a fallout shelter and emergency command centre outside Ottawa. [1]
  3. That, in opposition, he had forcefully opposed the design for what became our national flag.

My uneducated verdict: Canada didn’t fall apart under the six years of his rule. On the other hand, Diefenbunker aside, it was hard to point to any enduring accomplishment of his government.

(Note: all unsourced Diefenbaker quotes and anecdotes are taken from One Canada.)

diefenbaker one canada boxed set

One Canada, Memoirs of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker.

Progressive, conservative.

Between 1942 and 2003 Canada’s right-of-centre party, colloquially the Tories, were officially the Progressive Conservative Party: columnist Allan Fotheringham used to mock them as the Forward-Backwards Party.

This self-cancelling sobriquet originated as a sop to John Bracken, the popular Progressive premier of Manitoba, to induce him to seek the national Conservative leadership in 1942. In Diefenbaker’s view, by the 1945 election (which the Tories lost) Bracken had abandoned whatever Progressive principles he carried over to his new party.

Before romping to the Tory leadership in 1956, Diefenbaker made longshot runs in 1942 (just two years after arriving in Ottawa) and 1948. He did a little better each time, to the annoyance of the party “pashas” in Central Canada, whom he disdained as reactionaries and who in turn despised him as a “Western populist”. Then as now, what this meant was hard to pin down:

I once asked one of them to define the term for me. He thought it was some kind of erratic radicalism. When pressed further, he wasn’t certain what his new term encompassed, except that it did encompass those things he disapproved of.

Much of Dief’s “populism” was gestural, like his conspicuous lack of interest in joining Ottawa’s tony Rideau Club. (He used to chuckle that from his office atop Parliament Hill he could “look down on” the club a couple blocks away.) In his memoir he recounts how an “important Canadian industrialist” once dropped by his office and complained when he wasn’t shown in ahead of an Alberta farmer with a prior appointment – a mere “rustic”, as the indignant bigshot supposedly described him.

That such snobbishness was highly correlated with Liberal Party membership may have been more than Dief’s paranoid fancy: after 21 uninterrupted years in power, the Liberals would have been the party of choice for power-hungry hacks, greasy-pole-climbers, and all those serenely invested in the status quo.

The Tories defeated Louis St. Laurent’s Liberal Party in 1957 by running to their left on the economy – vowing to increase the Old Age Pension, launch a major public works program to fight rising unemployment, and roll back the “continentalist” trade policy that had allowed big American corporations to buy out or outcompete smaller Canadian firms. Their victory was propelled in part by public disgust at Liberal high-handedness in invoking closure to shut down the Pipeline Debate in 1956; the Tories’ main objection to that bill had been that the pipeline in question was to be built by an American-owned company.

You’ll notice that 1950s-style Progressive Conservativism has a lot of overlap with modern-day conservative populism – bumptiously nationalistic, suspicious of foreign capital, blithe about budget deficits – and would go over about as well with the descendents of that “important Canadian industrialist”. As Peter C. Newman wrote in Maclean’s during the 1963 election campaign:

The sight of a Tory prime minister condemning Toronto financial interests is indeed a strange one in Canadian history. But then Diefenbaker has always been a maverick in his own party. When he was in opposition he shocked his fellow Conservatives by advocating that businessmen convicted of monopoly practices should be jailed, not just fined.

Diefenbaker elaborates:

To steal a million dollars and face a ten-thousand-dollar fine, if one was caught, was an invitation to the potential wrongdoer. … [A] corporation as an artificial person is not punished by picayune penalties of that kind.

I’m sure Dief would have had much to say about a Liberal government’s legally questionable convolutions to avoid prosecuting a major Quebec-based employer.

Against bigness.

Humblingly, the fourth thing I thought I knew about Diefenbaker I had completely backward. In my faulty recollection Dief, the doughty sentinel of Canadian sovereignty, had nurtured the Avro Arrow, the technologically advanced fighter jet whose funding was vindictively cut off by his Liberal successors.

Of course, as any afficianado of Canadian made-for-TV historical dramas could tell you, it was Diefenbaker who vindictively killed the Arrow, a project bequeathed to him by Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals. As he admits:

[F]rom a construction standpoint, the AVRO Arrow was an impressive aircraft, superior to any other known contemporary all-weather fighter, something all Canadians could be proud of as their product.

But alas:

[I]t was altogether too costly, had too short a range, and would be out of date by the time it got into production.

Moreover, the Arrow’s potential customers in Europe and the States, concerned no doubt with cultivating their countries’ own airplane industries, showed no interest in buying the damn thing. Critics (like Gordon Donaldson, in Sixteen Men) have recast Dief’s reluctant acceptance of the economic realities as a deliberate and gleeful desecration:

An industry died and Diefenbaker stamped on its grave by personally demanding that the five Arrows in existence be completely destroyed. … It was the most extravagant display of vandalism in Canadian history.

Dief claims to have had no foreknowledge of the “callous” way his decision would be handled – the workers laid off via an announcement over the factory loudspeakers, the prototypes “reduced to scrap”. For these actions he pins the blame on the manufacturers, who were lazy parasites besides:

A.V. Roe, since the end of the Second World War, had lived and grown rich on Canadian defence contracts. The company seemed horror-struck at the prospect of having ever to compete in a normal market-place situation.

It isn’t hard for a more sympathetic historian, like John Boyko, to frame this as another instance of Diefenbaker putting the boot to entrenched business interests:

Two years before President Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex, Diefenbaker proved that he would not be its handmaiden: the Arrow was dead[.]

In fact, Diefenbaker was as fulsome as any modern conservative in his attacks on government waste and his celebration of free markets. This sometimes had schizophrenic effects. Senator Eugene Forsey recalled a meeting with the Canadian Labour Congress in which one of Dief’s ministers gave a well-received presentation on the government’s labour-friendly policies. But alas:

The prime minister arose and said, “I have nothing to add to what the minister of labour has said,” and then talked for ten minutes and proved it. He not only had nothing to add, he had a great deal to subtract. It wasn’t at all clear … But out of the fog came, from time to time, “free enterprise, the principles of free enterprise, the principles of free enterprise to which this government was devoted…”
—Quoted in Peter Stursberg’s Diefenbaker: Leadership Gained.

Forsey sent a letter chiding the PM for fumbling the goodwill his minister had reaped; Dief responded by snubbing Forsey for the next two years.

In his memoir, Diefenbaker attempts to square his contradictory impulses:

I believe in the right of the individual to make his best in life. I have nothing but contempt for those who regard profits as being dangerous. Without them there is no advance, nor would there be the free society that is ours. But I believe that there must be a minimum for all. There is a profound division between those who believe that the State has no legitimate role in determining the course of the individual, and those who believe that the State has responsibilities as a referee, and so must have the power to protect the weak and the less privileged. I am not against big business. Bigness is essential today as never before; but I am against bigness when it permits the few to destroy or undermine the welfare of the many.

(A modern-day conservative populist has expressed the idea more pithily:

Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite.)

To his conservative critics, such ideological eclecticism only proved that Diefenbaker “had no discernible political convictions”. To liberal journalists, who might have been expected to show more sympathy, the explanation was that he was building a personality cult. Newman again:

Diefenbaker made sure there would be few ideological barriers to those who wanted to become his disciples. In order to involve non-Conservatives in his struggle, he deliberately discarded most of his party’s traditional policies and transformed it into an organ of personal aggrandizement.

In a later Maclean’s article Newman would psychoanalyze Diefenbaker’s small-town followers in language forecasting modern-day expeditions among the surly denizens of Trumpland:

It is anger that fills their minds and resentment that motivates their politics. Not so long ago they were at the forefront of Canadian civilization. They won this country from the wilderness and now they have lost it[.] … They regret the disappearance of simplicity, fidelity and all the homely virtues.

Meanwhile Dief’s Liberal opponents, however few their substantive policy differences with his government, had borrowed from their American friends the mantle of suavity and forward-lookingness. When in 1963 Democratic Party pollster Lou Harris (who had entered Canada using a false name to avoid alerting Diefenbaker to his presence) surveyed the electorate on behalf of Lester Pearson’s Liberals he found that (to quote Boyko again):

The party was attracting the same people as Kennedy and the Democrats: urban, educated, young, middle and upper class, and ethnic minorities. These groups, Harris told his Liberal friends, represented Canada’s future. Conservative support rested with each of the groups’ mirror opposites and, like Diefenbaker himself, hearkened back to a quickly receding past.

Years later, the author George Grant recalled how he’d baffled the metropolitan opinion-shapers by backing this “silly survivor from a well-forgotten past”. He quotes a “young scion of great wealth” who chided him:

“Oh George, how can you support such a vulgarian? Pearson is such a gentleman compared to that yahoo.”

Deux nations.

john and olive diefenbaker 1960

John and Olive Diefenbaker in 1960.
Source: Maclean’s.

Of course, no populist campaign would be complete without accusations of dog-whistle politics. However often Diefenbaker protested his belief in equal rights for all – however conciliatory were the French phrases he bawled out in his barbaric Saskatchewan accent – he could never shed the reputation of being secretly anti-Quebec.

The critics were confident that they could crack Dief’s coded messages to his redneck base. Of the 1965 campaign, in which the ousted Chief flogged his Liberal successors over a series of scandals, historian J.L. Granatstein wrote:

The names were French, and the Tory leader revelled in his mispronunciations and appeals for One Canada. In the code of the day, whatever Diefenbaker might have meant, he was unfailingly understood as wanting to put and keep Quebec in its place.

Or when at the 1967 Tory convention, Dief (fighting hopelessly to retain the party leadership) resisted a policy declaring Canada as constituting “deux nations”:

To many it seemed only a statement of the Canadian reality. But to John Diefenbaker, deux nations meant that his party was giving short shrift to those Canadians who were of neither French nor English origin and conceding an equality to French Canadians that he could not accept.

Pained by such sniping, Dief would point to his government’s record: the appointment of Canada’s first French Canadian governor general, bilingual cheques for civil servants, the introduction of simultaneous translation in parliamentary debates. His cabinet minister Leon Balcer later told Peter Stursberg that these were “the kind of thing that would have created enthusiasm in Quebec in the fifties”. But by 1960, Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was already getting into swing, and such gestures could be dismissed as mere “tokenism”.

While Dief was seen in some English Canadian circles as too ethnic, in Quebec he was resented for his sentimental attachment to the British crown, his support for conscription during the war, and his reverence for Tory prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, still blamed for overseeing the execution of the French Canadian rebel Louis Riel in 1885. That event wasn’t such ancient history as it seems today: as a child Diefenbaker had met Riel’s lieutenant Gabriel Dumont, by then a fearsome and fascinating old man, with a distinctive part in his hair from the bullet that grazed his skull at the battle of Duck Lake.

Diefenbaker thought that Riel’s cause had been just, but the man himself off his rocker:

If I had a case in which the evidence of insanity was as clear, I would not have to submit any further evidence, I feel sure. If he had allowed his lawyers to carry the defence as they wanted to, he would have been found “not guilty” by reason of insanity.

Riel’s death, he complained, had ever since been “a millstone” dragging down the Tories’ chances in Quebec.

Ironically, it was a Quebecker, Diefenbaker’s sometime-ally, sometime-rival Pierre Sevigny, who claimed credit for inventing Dief’s catchphrase during the 1958 campaign:

Diefenbaker was talking in his inimitable way about Canada, the dream of a greater and better and bigger Canada. I told him: “Well let’s leave it as this. One Canada where everybody will live together in harmony.” I remember the word “harmony.” My God, it was as if I had put a bomb under his seat. He got up and said, “That’s it! Yes. One Canada.”

Sevigny traced Dief’s anti-French reputation back to his decision in 1957 to heed the strategic advice of a western colleague, Gordon Churchill, to reallocate party funds away from the pursuit of Quebec votes:

[Churchill] did not advocate starving out Quebec and giving it nothing. But he advocated a common-sense policy which was to use the little money that the PCs had in a better way, in a more rational way than had been done. …

Of course, politics being the nice polite game that it is, Mr Churchill’s and Mr Diefenbaker’s and all of the Conservatives’ enemies took advantage of this declaration to represent Churchill as the enemy of Quebec and French Canada and that kind of nonsense.
—Quoted in Stursberg, Leadership Gained.

In this respect, the 1957 Tories presaged the 2016 Trump campaign’s adoption of the so-called Sailer Strategy of abandoning their unavailing attempts to win over Latino voters to pursue more numerous, more persuadable blue-collar whites.

The dirty brush.

john diefenbaker 1940

Diefenbaker circa 1940.
Source: Saskatoon Public Library.

Like Donald Trump, Diefenbaker would be dogged by rumours of association with avowed racists:

A flash in the pan, the K.K.K. was first noticeable in Saskatchewan in 1926. It spread much in the same way as the Non-Partisan League or the Progressive Party before it. Based on a strong anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-non-English-immigrant, anti-coloured sentiment, it was fired by the oratorical powers of J.J. Maloney. Around it coalesced certain factions sharing a bitter hatred for the [Liberal Premier James] Gardiner machine. If left alone, it might have disappeared as quickly as it had emerged. Unfortunately for everyone, Gardiner began in 1928 to use it as a political straw man. He launched a series of political attacks on it in the Provincial Legislature, bringing the K.K.K. out of its obscurity, giving its leaders the appearance of political martyrs, and making it a recognizable centre of opposition to his government and its policies. Everyone who opposed Gardiner, his policies, and the viciousness of his machine was tarred with the dirty brush of Klan fanaticism.

That, at least, was how Diefenbaker saw it: no doubt Gardiner and his allies convinced themselves they were doing noble work, shining a cleansing light on this outbreak of moral bacilli. (Likewise Hillary Clinton as she singlehandedly made the alt-right a household name by condemning it in the middle of a national election campaign; likewise the American media each time they play along with some desperate attempt by David Duke to edge himself into the national conversation.)

Diefenbaker goes on to share an addendum to the Klan story that a contemporary politico would likely omit:

I met the Klan leader, J.J. Maloney, only once and then for a period of not more than five or ten minutes. He asked for legal advice on the financial difficulties of the K.K.K. arising when its American organizers absconded with a large part of the organization’s dues.

I’m sure this encounter didn’t help Diefenbaker’s case when, during his 1956 leadership campaign, he was accused of having been in the Klan. He was cleared through the intercession of a Saskatchewan cabinet minister who, having access for some reason to “a complete list of the Klan membership”, swore that Diefenbaker’s name wasn’t on it.

(While some of Dief’s foes were trying to link him to the Klan, others were whispering that he was secretly a Jew.)

A reincarnated Diefenbaker would probably be more circumspect about having had cordial business dealings with a Klan leader. But the incident is consistent with his belief that everyone, however unpopular, was entitled to a legal defense. [2] During World War II he opposed the persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for their refusal to take up arms; at the dawn of the Cold War he condemned the government’s use of “police state methods” to break up a Soviet spy ring; and soon after he was “booed to the echo” by his Tory colleagues for resisting a party proposal to criminalize Communism. As Maclean’s related a few years later:

[T]he project got so far along that the literature was actually printed and awaiting distribution. Diefenbaker fought the idea in caucus, using the same arguments as Stuart Garson, the Liberal Minister of Justice, uses in public – that to outlaw Communism merely drives the party underground; that you can’t put a man in jail for his beliefs, no matter what they are. Diefenbaker carried his point. The campaign literature, still in bales, was carted away and burned. But the incident did nothing to allay the suspicions of those who call Diefenbaker a “Leftist.”

(In those quaint days “Leftists” were understood to be opposed to criminalizing speech.)

When in 1958 he introduced his legislation for a bill of rights – a document he’d been tinkering with since his days as a young lawyer in Wakaw, Saskatchewan – it was with the promise that thenceforth

wherever a Canadian may live, whatever his race, his religion or his colour, the Parliament of Canada would be jealous of his rights.

In his statue on Parliament Hill, Diefenbaker is depicted clutching a copy of his cherished bill.

“They are all Canadians.”

Dief’s bugbear “hyphenated Canadianism” sounds like a talking point from Canada’s modern-day megaphone of intemperate populism, The Rebel. But back before our government began sorting the citizenry into ever more profusely hyphenated racial categories to enforce equal representation, Dief’s beef was with what modern progressives would call the “othering” of those with non-British and non-French ancestry.

In an interview with Maclean’s during the 1958 election, Diefenbaker was strangely tight-lipped about the most innocent subjects – his favourite books, his favourite TV shows, his favourite food [3] – but he opened up when asked about “his compass”:

I determined to bring about a Canadian citizenship that knew no hyphenated consideration. … It’s the reason I went into public life. That is what I said I was going to do. I’m very happy to be able to say that in the House of Commons today in my party we have members of Italian, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Chinese and Ukrainian origin – and they are all Canadians. [4]

Under his government, Canada’s immigration system was reformed to remove the preferential status that had been granted to applicants from the British Isles and Western Europe. He bragged of having encouraged Canada’s first black MP, Lincoln Alexander, to run – “because he was a good man for the riding, not because he was black” – and of having appointed Canada’s first Native Canadian senator, James Gladstone.

diefenbaker native headdress duck lake saskatchewan

Diefenbaker is lectured for culturally appropriating Native Canadian headgear.
(I kid.)

As for Louis Rasminsky, his pick as governor of the Bank of Canada, he claimed he would have had the job already if St. Laurent’s Liberals hadn’t ruled him out because he was a Jew.

Diefenbaker sympathized with minorities in part because he, too, had put up with digs about his ethnicity. Saskatchewan CCF leader Tommy Douglas recalled sharing a microphone with Diefenbaker during the 1940 campaign:

I was rather pleased to meet him because at that time he was having a difficult time. My sympathies were with him. … [His Liberal opponent] Fred Johnson, more than by innuendo, very deliberately tried to portray Diefenbaker as a German. Every time he referred to him he referred to him as my opponent, “Mr. Diefenbacker,” and made it as guttural as possible at a time when, of course, anti-German feeling was very high.
—Quoted in Stursberg, Leadership Gained.

Although the political impact was probably marginal – Diefenbaker narrowly won that race – such insults nevertheless stung:

I suppose that those who have never experienced this sort of thing will never truly understand it. I have often wondered what the effect on my life would have been if my name had been my mother’s, Campbell-Bannerman, rather than Diefenbaker. [5]

Hence, President John F. Kennedy’s innocent mispronunciation of “Diefenbawker” was doubly grating: a personal slight, as well as a slight to Canada, whose leader’s name the callow president couldn’t be troubled to learn.

diefenbaker kennedy maclean's magazine

Diefenbaker and Kennedy.
Source: Maclean’s.

(As prickly as Dief could be about his own name, his enemies’ names were fair targets: during the 1965 election he would rail at “the Bananas and the Mananas and the rest of that menagerie,” referring to some petty Liberal corruption scandals concerning mobsters Joe Bonanno and Onofrio Minaudo.)

Reading about Dief’s name sensitivity, I was reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ complaint in Hitch-22 that certain left-wing journalists, when discussing his politically unpopular friend Paul Wolfowitz, would become suspiciously fastidious about pronouncing his name “Volfervitz” – rather than in the usual, and in this case correct, American way.

This might have been, as Hitchens believed, a “clumsy innuendo” on Wolfowitz’s Jewishness; or it might merely have been a misplaced straining for cultural sensitivity. (Compare for instance the German-born composer Kurt Weill who, after moving to the States, was annoyed by Americans who took the trouble to pronounce his name in the German fashion rather than, as he preferred, anglicizing it to “Curt While”.)

While on this topic, I can’t overlook Peter C. Newman’s assertion that Diefenbaker, nettled by his portrayal as a vain ditherer in Newman’s book Renegade In Power,

took great delight in mispronouncing my name as “Kneeman,” or more frequently as “Noyman.” He called me, in public, the “Bouncing Czech” [6] and in private, “that Viennese Jew.”

As evidence, Newman points to a handwritten note in the Diefenbaker archives:

Then there is Newman. … He is an innately evil person who seems intent on tearing other people to pieces. Seems honourable people have no protection from his mind and pen. He makes his fortune in doing so. NOTE: He is an import from VIENNA! [7]

Decline and fall.

As Robert Fulford documented after Dief’s 1963 defeat:

American journalists showed no affection for John Diefenbaker. He said in the campaign that they were against him, and he was right … from the liberal Democratic Reporter (“incapable of decision”) through the liberal Republican Life (“shrewd but narrow”), through the nonpartisan Atlantic Monthly (“Washington, like London, is weary of the Diefenbaker regime, which has had a genius for annoying both capitals”) right over to the ultra-conservative National Review (“led a once-great party into a wilderness of suspicion and parochialism”).

In his 1962 and ’63 campaigns, Dief suffered media coverage so blatantly, nitpickingly negative that it probably helped him, by affirming the authenticity of his embattled little-guy pose, more than it hurt. If anyone doubted that the powers-that-be had it in for him, he could unfurl, say, this mid-campaign edition of Newsweek with its lurid cover portrait:

diefenbaker newsweek cover february 1963

Newsweek, February, 1963.

…and equally lurid portrait inside:

[T]he India-rubber features twist and contort in grotesque and gargoyle-like grimaces; beneath the electric gray V of the hairline, the eyebrows beat up and down like bats’ wings; the agate-blue eyes blaze forth cold fire.

Diefenbaker would claim in his memoir that Newsweek‘s Washington bureau chief, a friend and ally of President Kennedy, had published the above article at Kennedy’s behest.

The later years of Dief’s rule had been enlivened by repeated spats with the Americans. The PM had gotten on chummily with President Eisenhower, who “[u]nlike his successor … did not regard the United States presidency as a glittering jewel; he saw it as a job to be done.” But when the rich, good-looking Kennedy came to power, Dief saw in him a Yankee manifestation of Liberal-style haughtiness and unearned self-assurance. (Kennedy had an equally immediate aversion to Diefenbaker, “that boring son of a bitch”; Mrs. Kennedy found his conversation “painful”.)

On their first meeting, in Washington, the former small-town lawyer asked the new president how he could have appointed his brother Robert, with no expertise in the law, as Attorney-General. Kennedy evaded the question with a joke: “Can you tell me how he could learn law faster?”

When the two history buffs chatted about the War of 1812, Kennedy teased his visitor that he was unaware of any British naval victories in that war. On his return to Ottawa, Diefenbaker instructed his national librarian to dig up some paintings depicting British victories so that he could send one as a gift to the president. His executive assistant John Fisher resisted:

I pleaded with Mr Diefenbaker, “Don’t send that to Kennedy, sir. What are you trying to prove by sending down something a hundred years after the event?” “Oh, we must teach him history. History must be taught,” he would mutter. I could tell from the twinkle in his eye that he was enjoying the devilish exercise.
—Quoted in Stursberg, Leadership Gained.

Fisher had the paintings sent out to be cleaned and then “stalled, stalled, stalled” in the hope that his boss would forget about the rash idea. (They were never sent.)

As the two leaders’ relationship soured, the ribbing gave way to real antipathy. Of being nagged by the new president to join the Organization of American States, Dief writes:

I was not about to have Canada bullied into any course of action. This was the first of a number of occasions on which I had to explain to President Kennedy that Canada was not Massachusetts, or even Boston.

He bristled at Kennedy’s demand that Canada stop trading with Castro’s Cuba, and lost his temper over American bureaucratic interference with a shipment of Canadian wheat to Communist China. Kennedy was equally infuriated when Diefenbaker was slow to mobilize the Canadian military during the Cuban missile crisis. (Dief feared that the move might antagonize the Soviets.) But the final straw was the PM’s refusal to accept American nuclear warheads for the Bomarc surface-to-air missile systems he’d agreed to install at two locations in Ontario and Quebec.

Dief’s reticence wasn’t based on philosophical opposition to nukes (although he was in favour of non-proliferation and arms-reduction treaties in the abstract) but on the reasonable-seeming principle that Canada must first be guaranteed joint control – that is, a “qualified veto” governing the use – of any nukes stationed on Canadian soil.

With nuclear bombers having been supplanted as the major threat to North American security by intercontinental missiles – against which surface-to-air missiles were ineffective – Dief had begun to suspect that, like the now-cancelled Avro Arrow, the Bomarcs survived only because of bureaucratic inertia. It didn’t emerge until just before the 1963 election that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had admitted that the Bomarcs’ primary strategic purpose now was to draw fire from Soviet missiles “that would otherwise be available for other targets”.

By the mid-1970s, when Dief was composing his memoir, the Liberals under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had gone much farther in thumbing their noses at the Americans while advertising Canada’s friendliness to Communist regimes. But in the early 1960s those needling Dief for insufficient hawkishness included not only right-wing members of his own cabinet, but most of the media, the Democratic administration in Washington, and his Liberal opposition in Ottawa.

Trudeau’s predecessor as Liberal leader, Lester Pearson – for the benefit of my non-Canadian readers, that would be Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester Pearson – jettisoned his earlier skepticism toward the Bomarc system and blasted the government for its “evasion of responsibility” in not accepting the nuclear warheads. In Dief’s view, Pearson had sold his principles in exchange for foreign aid in the elections of 1962 and 1963:

President Kennedy had achieved his dearest Canadian wish. It was a partnership complete: the Liberals under Pearson had progressed, if one may call it that, from condemning our wheat sales to Communist China … to embracing the United States position on arming with nuclear weapons the Bomarcs and, no doubt, yielding to United States demands for the storage of all manner of nuclear devices in Canada. At the time, Pierre Elliott Trudeau described Mr. Pearson as “the unfrocked pope of peace.”

(Trudeau in the early 1960s had been a supporter of the socialist NDP and a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy. Throughout his memoirs Dief has fun recalling Trudeau’s gibes at Pearson’s coziness with the Americans.)

diefenbaker watching trudeau on tv

Diefenbaker watches Trudeau in the 1979 leaders’ debate.
Source: Canadian Press.

Kennedy’s team certainly made no secret of the fact that they had been cheerleading for Pearson’s Liberals, even if their actual interference had the opposite of the desired effect: the newly elected Pearson told Kennedy that his State Department’s notorious press release accusing the ex-PM of lying about the nuclear negotiations had “probably cost me fifty seats”, by riling up Dief’s nationalist supporters.

I’m sure many readers will scoff at Diefenbaker’s suggestion that besides authorizing the press release, ordering up the nasty Newsweek article, and loaning his pollster to the Liberals, Kennedy had arranged for his Wall Street buddies to take steps to undermine the Canadian economy, leading to the 1962 run on the currency which contributed to Dief’s defeat.

There’s no proof of that. But at the time, many Americans concurred with Diefenbaker that Washington had deftly engineered his downfall. Some, like Richard Starnes in the Washington Daily News, praised the operation:

[A]droit statecraft by the American State Department brought down the bumbling crypto anti-Yankee government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and replaced it with a regime that promises to be faithful to the concept of Canadian-American interdependence. … [T]he Kennedy Administration must congratulate itself in private for its coup.

Other Americans were aghast at their government’s cheek, like the man who approached Dief in the wake of his loss saying, “I want to shake hands with the only Prime Minister of Canada who has ever been defeated by a President of the United States.”

Whatever combo of U.S. interference, media bias, and Tory backstabbing overwhelmed Diefenbaker, it was certainly helped along by his own talent for aggravating the rich and influential. As he expressed it, not without self-pity:

I went down there to see what I could do for the common people and the big people finished me[.]

One Canada.

In the foreword to Volume Two of One Canada, Diefenbaker’s editors remark that Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, like President Hoover in the States, is to this day maligned for having had the bad luck to be in power as the Great Depression set in. Bennett left no memoir to tell his side of the story. Consequently:

The Conservative regime that governed Canada from 1930 to 1935 has been treated by Canadian historians as an aberration in the great Liberal scheme of things Canadian. A major work on R.B. Bennett has yet to be written. Had Mr. Diefenbaker failed to provide us his account of his national stewardship, we might have had worse than nothing in its stead.

Intent on supplying grist for the historians, Diefenbaker dissects his prime ministership with eye-glazing thoroughness, quoting liberally from his own speeches, press statements, and routine correspondence. (Perhaps to debunk the myth of his French-language illiteracy, several lengthy statements are presented in their original French.)

But his tendency to assume an intimate knowledge of the politics of his era makes his memoir useless as a standalone history. Often he’ll introduce a subject with some comment like “Without going into unnecessary details (they are chronicled elsewhere)…” leaving the reader to guess where he stood on the issue: not always easy, given how Dief bucked his own party’s traditions, not to mention how political alignments have shifted in the past sixty years. I found myself skimming a lot, slowing down for the interludes of gossip, spleen-venting, and folksy wisdom.

Therefore I can’t quite recommend One Canada to casual readers. Perhaps some Canadian publishing house with a passion for 20th century history and a jaunty indifference to sales figures could undertake a one-volume abridgement, which would skip over the langours but retain all the good stuff. If an editor is wanted, I’m available.

M.

1. Re Diefenbaker’s civil defence policy, see discussion of the Special Militia Training Plan in Chapter 6 of Andrew Burtch’s “Canada and the Failure of Civil Defence, 1945-1963”.

2. Dief took seriously his cabinet’s responsibility to review every death sentence case; these lengthy discussions annoyed his colleagues and contributed to his government’s reputation for irresolution and inertia. Per Peter C. Newman’s accounting (in Renegade In Power), Dief’s cabinet commuted 52 of the 66 death sentences they examined, a percentage much higher than their predecessors’ 35 of 85.

These sentence reviews led to awkwardness over the presence of Ellen Fairclough, Canada’s first female cabinet minister, whom the old-fashioned Dief once asked to leave the room during consideration of an infamous sex killing. She complied but later scoffed at the overdelicacy of her “namby-pamby” male colleagues. (This story is related in Stursberg’s Leadership Gained.)

3. In Renegade in Power, Newman recounts how “when reporters badgered Mrs Diefenbaker to tell them her husband’s favourite food, she had no answer. Later, when she asked him, he hesitated for a while, then replied, ‘Oh, yes, I know. Potatoes.'”

4. In the same 1958 Maclean’s interview Diefenbaker declares that he has “an intensive hatred for discrimination based on color”. He attributes this conviction, strangely enough, to his early viewing of the movie Birth of a Nation, with its heroic Ku Klux Klansmen protecting Southern civilization from brutish blacks. As near as I can tell from browsing old reviews on Google Books, Birth of a Nation was seen as racist even in the 1950s. Did Dief mean that as a teen he was so repelled by the movie that he became an anti-racist? Or did he discern in it some anti-racist moral that is invisible to modern viewers?

5. Considering the number of Canadians and Americans with German ancestry, it’s remarkable how rarely politicians with German-sounding names have risen to prominence in either country. West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer couldn’t help noticing the overlapping tenures of the 20th century’s two great exceptions: at a 1958 meeting with the PM, he joked, “Adenauer, Eisenhower, and Diefenbaker – what a threesome!”

6. In Martin Amis’s non-fiction book about Communism, Koba the Dread, he mentions how after his father Kingsley visited Czechoslovakia in 1966 a “stream of Czechs” dropped by their London home, leading to a corresponding stream of bad puns: “There were bouncing Czechs, certified Czechs, and at least one honored Czech, the novelist Josef Skvorecky.”

7. I really don’t know what to make of Dief’s alleged slurs against Newman, who has been accused by others of “greedy and cynical manipulation” of the facts: Conrad Black, for one, called him “a peddler of gossip” and sued him for libel. But then, Black’s reputation is not exactly without blemish

Eisenhower Derangement Syndrome.

Reading up on President Eisenhower for an upcoming essay on Canadian PM John Diefenbaker, I was reminded of a passage I marked while reading Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift last year.

The narrator, Charlie, recalls the reaction of his friend Humboldt, a Jewish radical poet with paranoid tendencies, to Eisenhower’s election in 1952:

I sensed that he was afraid of his back-country neighbors. In his nightmares they burned his house, he shot it out with them, they lynched him and carried off his wife. Humboldt said, “What do we do now? What’s our next move?”

These questions were asked only to introduce the scheme he had in mind.

“Our move?”

“Either we leave the US during this administration, or we dig in.”

“We could ask Harry Truman for asylum in Missouri.”

“Don’t joke with me, Charlie. I have an invitation from the Free University of Berlin to teach American literature.”

“That sounds grand.”

He quickly said, “No, no! Germany is dangerous. I wouldn’t take a chance on Germany.”

“That leaves digging in. Where are you going to dig?”

“I said ‘we.’ The situation is very unsafe. If you had any sense you’d feel the same.”

Threatening to leave the United States if the Republican candidate wins has become such a cliché that even left-wing publications like The Guardian and Cracked roll their eyes; but I hadn’t realized how early that cliché appeared. It wouldn’t have surprised me to read about liberals freaking out over Reagan’s or Nixon’s victories the same way – but harmless, avuncular Ike?

I suppose the tradition dates to the earliest days of the Republican Party. Sore losers reacted to Abe Lincoln’s win by leaving the United States and taking their states with them.

M.

In previous posts I’ve wondered whether Saul Bellow was in real life as exasperatingly articulate as his narrators, and discussed his friendships with Allan Bloom and Martin Amis. I mostly stay away from U.S. politics but back in 2016 I indulged in some last-minute Trump risk calculations before opting for measured optimism.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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