Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: france

Robespierre the Incorruptible, Robespierre the Daemonic

Robespierre in better times (1791)

Robespierre in better times (1791)

I remember many years ago being very surprised to find out that there were people who esteemed Robespierre. Not only esteemed him but idealized him. I’d been raised on the standard account by which Robespierre was a bad guy, not on the order of Stalin or Mao, but indisputably an unsympathetic villain. Seeing him defended was about as surprising as if I’d found out there were fans of Louis XVI or Richard Nixon (little did I know…).

I think Alexander Cockburn’s memoirs were the first place I encountered a positive mention of Robespierre. Eric Hobsbawm’s histories are sympathetic but far more tentative on the matter. But Cockburn had busts of Robespierre and Robespierre’s younger-and-badder lieutenant Saint-Just in his house, and proudly identified with the man who, at least in his mind, was an absolute patriot of the French Revolution and its ideals, executions and all.

I was later surprised again when I discovered that Robespierre-fandom had once been mainstream in the fairly Marxist French historical school in the first half of the 20th century, particularly the giants Albert Mathiez and George Lefebvre. Mathiez especially saluted Robespierre as an unalloyed hero.

The wheel has turned quite a bit since that time, since a lot more people today have read Simon Schama arguing that the whole revolution was rotten from the start (in his bestselling Citizens) than have even heard of Mathiez. Schama will never convince me, since I see very little to his argument that the Old Regime was coming around and would have treated the 99% better had they just been a little bit more patient, but the horrible bloody Revolution was doomed to violence from the start. Schama is tendentious and, more or less, wrong. And if you’re going to be biased, shouldn’t you at least be biased on the side of those who had it rotten, rather than those who lived in luxury while 99.9% of the country worked under them?

Georges Danton

Georges Danton on a good day.

But on the other hand, I remain pretty unsympathetic to Robespierre, even though I find him fascinating as a human being. People tend to oppose the gregarious Danton and the hyperserious Robespierre, but I never much cared for Danton either, who comes off as a charismatic, though well-meaning, buffoon. I suspect I would have found Danton more annoying (and more corruptible) than Robespierre, but Robespierre was far more dangerous. I agree that “Robespierre the Incorruptible” was indeed incorruptible…but I also think that incorruptible people can be pretty scary. Robespierre had some glaring but not appalling personality flaws, like a puritanical obsession with purgative morality and a total lack of humor and self-awareness. These personality flaws were only going to become a problem if circumstances brought out the worst in him. Boy, did circumstances bring out the worst in him.

R. R. Palmer’s Twelve Who Ruled is an extremely well-written chronicle of the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety in 1793-94, as they tried to keep post-Revolutionary France from disintegrating through increasingly draconian methods, eventually resulting in the Terror. Eventually the twelve of the committee succumbed to infighting and. In Palmer’s account, Robespierre and his two closest allies Saint-Just and Couthon were squeezed on both sides when the more moderate technocrats (Carnot, Lindet, Prieur) and the revolutionary ultra-radicals (Billaud, Collot, and Bertrand Barere) abandoned them, which is how Robespierre and Saint-Just got the guillotine while the bloodthirsty Billaud and Collot survived. Unlike the high-minded Robespierre, Billaud and Collot come off as brutally proto-Leninist, while Barere’s mixture of idealism and opportunism defies easy explanation.

Cockburn endorsed Palmer’s book, which is somewhat surprising as Robespierre comes off rather badly. While Robespierre never appears as a murderous maniac, it’s actually more disturbing that a fundamentally nonviolent person would end up consenting to an regime of oppression, censorship, persecution, and executions. The source of Robespierre’s problems wasn’t paranoia either. Paranoia was in the air at the time, with very good reason. I don’t know that Robespierre was any more paranoid than anyone else in his circle, but the collective fear that everything was going to hell exacerbated Robespierre’s pre-existing tendencies to go overboard in his Manicheistic assessments of others. The originating flaw, as Palmer puts it:

Robespierre had the fault of a self-righteous and introverted man. Disagreement with himself he regarded simply as error, and in the face of it he would either withdraw into his own thoughts, or cast doubt on the motives behind the other man’s opinion. He was quick to charge others with the selfish interests of which he felt himself to be free. A concerted action in which he did not share seemed to him to be an intrigue. He had the virtues and the faults of an inquisitor. A lover of mankind, he could not enter with sympathy into the minds of his own neighbors.

Drawing on the equally unyielding Rousseau, who has since served as the founding text for much anti-liberal thought on both left and right, Robespierre smashed the public and private spheres together with a firm equation of Law = Morality = Justice = Goodness, seeing himself as the best arbiter of what fell inside their lines and what most certainly didn’t. The homogeneous totality of Rousseau’s General Will combined very badly the paranoia of the times, since opposing factions could not be loyal but had to be virulent and disagreement quickly turned into treason. Conciliation was therefore defeat. Again, Rousseau’s absolutist philosophy, unlike the far more practical, non-absolutist mainstream of the French Enlightenment, is distinctly unhelpful in such a situation:

Nor were the ideas to be gleaned from Rousseau more suited to encourage conciliation. In the philosophy of the Social Contract the “people” or “nation” is a moral abstraction. It is by nature good; its will is law. It is a solid indivisible thing. That the people might differ among themselves was a thought that Rousseau passed over rather hurriedly. Believers in the Social Contract thus viewed political circumstances in a highly simplified way. All struggles were between the people and something not the people, between the nation and something anti-national and alien. On the one hand was the public interest, self-evident, beyond questioning by an upright man; on the other hand were private interests, selfish, sinister and illegitimate. The followers of Rousseau were in no doubt which side they were on. It is not surprising that they would not only not compromise with conservative interests, but would not even tolerate free discussion among themselves, or have any confidence, when they disagreed, in each others’ motives. Robespierre in the first weeks of the Revolution was already, in his own words, “unmasking the enemies of the country.”

Robespierre stoked such fanaticism in others, which created a nasty feedback loop of encouraging further paranoia and purity, in a story that’s repeated itself many times before and since. (Look at how the Tea Party treats anyone with anything good to say about the Affordable Care Act or Obama, for example.) Character counted more for results, particularly when the judge was Robespierre’s de facto protege Saint-Just:

Saint-Just was a political puritan. He could not willingly work with men of whom he morally disapproved. He judged men more by their motives than by the contributions they might make to a common achievement. He feared that the good cause would be tarnished if dubious characters were allowed to promote it. This was not practical politics.

Saint-Just’s ideas were Robespierre’s ideas sharpened, simplified, exaggerated, schematized and turned into aphorisms. Robespierre had in him a broad streak of average human befuddlement, even mediocrity; Saint-Just was a specialized machine of revolutionary precision. Robespierre denied that Sparta was his model; Saint-Just harped continually on the ancients. Robespierre was self-righteous, Saint-Just more so: “God, protector of innocence and virtue, since you have led me among evil men it is surely to unmask them!” To Robespierre the straight and narrow way was plain enough; to Saint-Just it was terrifyingly obvious: “I think I may say that most political errors come from regarding legislation as a difficult science.” Or more laconically: “Long laws are public calamities.”

Demonizing opposing factions is one thing, but demonizing the People is a real problem, since Robespierre depended on the identity of his will with that of the People. This leaves open the question of what to do when The People do not agree with what you have decided. Robespierre was a great student of the idea of false consciousness before the term had even been coined. Ordinary people, alas, were suckers:

It is reassuring to be told that public opinion was the sole judge of what was in conformity with the law, but Robespierre claimed in the case of Avignon that, since all peoples aspired to be free, any Avignonnais who had not voted for incorporation into France ‘must be deemed oppressed’. Avignon was a local example of a more general problem. The goodness, patience and generosity of the mass of ordinary people meant that they were an easy prey to self-serving hypocrites. It was therefore the duty of the Assembly to ‘raise our fellow citizens’ souls . . . to the level of ideas and feelings required by this great and superb revolution’, Robespierre maintained in an undelivered speech of September 1789.

Robespierre’s problems were the product of what he believed to be his unique grasp of the political situation. The mass of the population meant well but, ‘aussi leger que genereux’, it was continually misled by ‘cowardly libellers’. On 3 March, he suggested sending the latter before the Revolutionary Tribunal, but that was merely striking at the symptoms. ‘Public feeling has lagged behind the Revolution . . . the people still lacks political sense.’ ‘Our enemies have public opinion in their hands.’ There had been sound political reasons for not submitting the fate of the king to a referendum, which would have made the division within the country explosively obvious, but that was not why Robespierre had opposed it. He asserted that ‘simple folk’ would be misled by ‘intriguers’ and that working people would not spare the time to attend the meetings of the primary assemblies. This was an argument, of course, that applied to all forms of democratic election. When, on 13 April, Gensonne’ proposed referring the Girondin-Montagnard quarrel to the electorate, Robespierre denounced such proposals as ‘blasphemies against liberty’.

Norman Hampson, “Robespierre and the Terror”

So Robespierre, unsurprisingly, had much less sympathy for trade unionism and civil protest once he had assumed dictatorial powers. While Hampson sees this as an outgrowth of his purism, Palmer sees it as an inevitable consequence of being in power:

The Committee, in short, was on the side of production, as most effective governments of whatever social philosophy apparently are. The labor policies of the revolutionary Republic and of the early industrial capitalists had much in common. The Committee punished strikes severely, and regarded agitators among the workmen as criminals at common law.

Nonetheless, Robespierre did want to bring the people along with him, and his rhetoric–and the rhetoric of the revolutionary government which he controlled–became focused on communal unity.

Privation can be met either by acceptance, which leads to Spartanism, or by discontent, which, when exploited for political aims, may lead to revolt. The Committee of Public Safety became increasingly Spartan, lauding the virtues of discipline and sacrifice. The reason was not simply that it was the government in office. “Virtue” was a favorite idea among the more honest Revolutionists; it meant a patriotism blended with a good deal of the old-fashioned morality of unselfishness. Of this quality Robespierre was the almost official spokesman; it was he who had put Virtue in the Revolutionary Calendar.

In the absence of 20th century mechanisms of control, central planning simply came off as inept. Again, much of the failings originated from Robespierre projecting on to The People an idealized vision out of touch with reality.

Saint-Just, like most other middle-class leaders of the Revolution, had almost no real knowledge of the problems of working-class people. He saw an undifferentiated mass of indigent patriots to whom it would be both humane and expedient to give land. He failed to distinguish between those who could use land and those who could not, between able-bodied landless agricultural laborers and the rest of the needy, the small artisans and city wage-earners, the not-quite-landless peasants, the old, the widowed, the orphaned, the crippled.

Increasingly frustrated and impatient, Robespierre charted out a plan to bring the entire populace into the realm of the True and the Good. This is his speech of February 5, 1794, which Palmer calls a milestone. It is pretty damn scary reading, from a man who was evidently unfamiliar with the maxim of “Underpromise and overdeliver.”

Too long, Robespierre began, have we acted in difficult circumstances only from a general concern for public good. We need “an exact theory and precise rules of conduct.”

“It is time to mark clearly the aim of the Revolution.

“We wish an order of things where all low and cruel passions are enchained by the laws, all beneficent and generous feelings awakened; where ambition is the desire to deserve glory and to be useful to one’s country; where distinctions arise only from equality itself; where the citizen is subject to the magistrate, the magistrate to the people, the people to justice; where the country secures the welfare of each individual, and each individual proudly enjoys the prosperity and glory of his country; where all minds are enlarged by the constant interchange of republican sentiments and by the need of earning the respect of a great people; where industry is an adornment to the liberty that ennobles it, and commerce the source of public wealth, not simply of monstrous riches for a few families.

“We wish to substitute in our country morality for egotism, probity for a mere sense of honor, principle for habit, duty for etiquette, the empire of reason for the tyranny of custom, contempt for vice for contempt for misfortune, pride for insolence, large-mindedness for vanity, the love of glory for the love of money, good men for good company, merit for intrigue, talent for conceit, truth for show, the charm of happiness for the tedium of pleasure, the grandeur of man for the triviality of grand society, a people magnanimous, powerful and happy for a people lovable, frivolous and wretched—that is to say, all the virtues and miracles of the Republic for all the vices and puerilities of the monarchy.

“We wish in a word to fulfil the course of nature, to accomplish the destiny of mankind, to make good the promises of philosophy, to absolve Providence from the long reign of tyranny and crime. May France, illustrious formerly among peoples of slaves, eclipse the glory of all free peoples that have existed, become the model to the nations, the terror of oppressors, the consolation of the oppressed, the ornament of the universe; and in sealing our work with our blood may we ourselves see at least the dawn of universal felicity gleam before us! That is our ambition. That is our aim.”

Maximilien could hardly have made it more clear. Nor could he have shown himself better as a child of the Enlightenment. He wanted a state founded upon morality, and by morality he meant not a sentimental goodheartedness, but the sum total of the qualities which he listed. His program was doubtless utopian; he expected a sudden regeneration of mankind, a complete transformation, seeing in the past no index, except negatively, to the future.”

Robespierre was eagerly coercive in bringing about this change. Again, his Incorruptibility went hand in hand with his self-determined Infallibility. These traits culminated in a very ham-fisted attempt at a deistic public religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being, described best by Norman Hampson:

Without consulting his colleagues on the  Committee,  Robespierre now persuaded the docile Assembly to adopt the cult of the Supreme Being, which marked a new stage in his identification of republicanism with morality. Since ‘the sole foundation of civil society is morality’, the prime objective of the enemy was ‘to corrupt public morals’. Crime was now equated with sin and vice versa, which meant that the scope for repression was virtually unlimited. Robespierre’s attempt to implement the penultimate chapter of the Social Contract was accompanied by a tribute to Rousseau whose ‘profound loathing of vice’ had earned him ‘hatred and persecution by his rivals and his false friends’. The parallel was too obvious to need elaborating.

Norman Hampson, “Robespierre and the Terror”

And with Robespierre being clearly out of touch at this point, trapped more between his ideals and reality than between the people and the government, it’s not surprising that he was unable to defend himself when the Committee broke ranks and turned against him. His defense of himself was a disaster, as Palmer recounts, ensuring that he would be scapegoated for all the Revolution’s excesses in the years immediately following and for many years beyond:

This address, the last Robespierre ever made, was eloquent, profoundly sincere, predominantly truthful. It painted a picture of dissension and intrigue that honeycombed the state. It described the means by which its author was made to seem individually responsible for the worst features of the Terror. It predicted that if the Revolutionary Government should fail a military dictatorship would follow, and France be plunged into a century of political unrest. But the speech was tactically a gigantic blunder. If it expressed Maximilien’s best qualities it unloosed all his worst; and it confirmed the most deadly fears of those who heard it.

Robespierre made his appeal supremely personal. Individualizing himself, he sounded like what the eighteenth century conceived a dictator to be. He gave the impression that no one was his friend, that no one could be trusted; that virtue, the people, the fatherland and the Convention, considered abstractly, were on his side, but that he obtained only calumny, persecution and martyrdom from the actual persons with whom he worked. He threatened right and left, indulgents and exaggerated terrorists, as in the past; but when asked point blank to name the men he accused, he evaded the question.

The immense irony was that Robespierre’s purism made it trivially easy to associate him with any ideological excesses. The ultra-revolutionary radicals who’d teamed up with the moderates to depose Robespierre soon realized that the word of the day was now pragmatism and compromise–and soon enough, weakness, paving the way for Napoleon. In death, Robespierre was now a pariah and dumping ground for all dissatisfactions, the convenient scapegoat for whatever had been going wrong that anyone didn’t like.

But in fact, to the consternation of extremists, 9 Thermidor fundamentally altered the Revolution. The extremists overthrew Robespierre by combining with moderates. They discredited Robespierre by blaming him for the violence of the Terror…To preach terrorism after Thermidor was to expose oneself to suspicions of Robespierrism, suspicions which above all others had to be avoided. Terrorists of the Year Two identified the Terror with one man, that they might themselves, by appearing peaceable and humane, win the confidence of the moderates. Barère revealed what was going on, writing in self-defense when he was himself accused: “Is his grave not wide enough for us to empty into it all our hatreds?” This was precisely what happened. The living sought a new harmony by agreeing to denounce the dead. And Maximilien Robespierre, who in life could not have stopped the Terror, contributed to its end in his death, by becoming a memory to be execrated and vilified, his grave a dumping ground for others’ hatreds.

Robespierre’s insistence on the incommensurability of virtue, the necessity of the Good in politics, his inability to compromise, his collapse of the personal and the political, his embrace of false consciousness as the condition of most of the public: these all extend the accusation of banausia as I described in Leftism and the Banausic Thinker. Not as ruthless or as cynical as Lenin, Robespierre depicts the revolutionary mindset in a purer form–one that some neo-Jacobins find very attractive. But I do think that like Robespierre and Saint-Just, you have to be drawn to integrity and idealism for its own sake, because it’s not clear from the facts themselves that Robespierre’s particular vision worked out any better than that of more practical politicians, particularly those of the early years of the Assembly, and they certainly resulted in more authorized bloodshed.

On the other hand, I notice a distinct retreat from Robespierre’s rhetoric in his supposed successors, less of a willingness to put forth the sheer gleaming vision that came to Robespierre so naturally. I can understand this retreat as the result of two factors:

  1. Historical lessons that have shown the gleaming vision to be further off than Robespierre believed.
  2. Reluctance to make sweeping accusations of false consciousness toward the populace, as Robespierre did.

Those positive visions can be a little scary. But The Gleaming Vision and False Consciousness are two of the most crucial tools in the Revolutionary’s toolbox. I think that the tepid nature of much current Leftist writing (when it isn’t just disappearing entirely into theory) owes to the lack of a forceful (coercively so) positive future vision, and the complementary near-myopic focus on critique. Radical critique has no fangs in the absence of a vividly better alternative. When Obama was putting forth fairly empty rhetoric of solidarity in 2008, most of what I heard as a concrete alternative, even from Leftist sources, was pretty straightforwardly Liberal/Progressive or Social Democratic. I didn’t really have a problem with that, but that is a problem for the radical left.

Without a Gleaming Vision, and the accusations of False Consciousness to level at those who reject the Gleaming Vision, critique only serves the purpose of establishing internal purity tests, one-upping dialogic opponents, and getting tenure or magazine posts. Allusions to Gleaming Visions remain steadfastly vague, whether you are reading Slavoj Zizek, Naomi Klein, Silvia Federici, or Antonio Negri. While they are hectoring in their criticism of capitalism’s blatant faults, they are fuzzy on the details of its successor–and thus the need for revolution rather than reform is not clear. Thomas Piketty’s surprisingly modest solutions in Capital in the 21st Centurya global wealth tax, but that’s about it–drastically separate him from the radical crowd. In The Nation, Timothy Shenk half-heartedly carps about Piketty’s incrementalism while making only the fuzziest motions at “a much richer set of possibilities” and “a more promising alternative” for the future. He doesn’t bother to say what they might be. That won’t cut it.

Besides, Shenk, I mention Negri in particular because the books he wrote with Michael Hardt (Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth) seem to have faded so quickly, the last one published to pretty much no notice. I believe this is precisely because of the limp, vague visions put forward in those books. Wide-ranging in their criticisms but terminally hazy in their jargon-laden biopolitical solutions, Hardt and Negri simply didn’t offer anything for movement members or the public to latch on to. If you are going to lay a claim to daemonic (non-banausic) thought, you have to do better than that. You need to offer a glimpse at Truth. Plato knew that, at least.

Jean Eustache: Mes petites amoureuses

Childhood, says the Children’s Encyclopaedia, is a time of innocent joy, to be spent in the meadows amid buttercups and bunny-rabbits or at the hearthside absorbed in a storybook. It is a vision of childhood utterly alien to him. Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring.

J.M. Coetzee, Boyhood

There have been many movies portraying various childhood hells with different degrees of sentimentality and relief, but I can’t think of one that competes with Jean Eustache’s Mes petites amoureuses in portraying childhood as so sheerly joyless, so gray and unappealing. The world is not as brutal to Daniel, its young teen protagonist, as it is to anyone in a Dardenne film or Francois in Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance Nue, nor is Daniel a delinquent on the order of Francois. But nor does Daniel experience much of the momentary fun that those characters get. So the movie is of a piece with Eustache’s earlier work, The Mother and the Whore, in its portrayal of the denial of pleasure in what for most people might be called the pursuit of happiness. Not torment, just jadedness.

Daniel leaves the countryside to move in with his mother and her rather lame lover. They treat him with indifference and contempt, though not quite outright abuse. He hangs out with locals, eventually learns how to pick up girls, gets a lousy job at a bike shop where he watches his employer rip off the customers. He provides suitably numbed voiceovers to some of his experiences, flatly detailing his feelings (“I was scared”). In contrast to Jean-Pierre Leaud’s charisma in The Mother and the Whore, the actor playing Daniel is reticent and a bit stiff; you can’t really get close to him, not that anyone in the movie ever tries. His most animated moments are when he is learning to pretend, as when simulating a circus sword-swallower’s act by lying on (carefully placed) broken glass, or when he is feeling up a girl in the movie theater by dutifully imitating a boy a few rows down.

There is one exceptional moment, and I don’t know whether to call it a slip on Eustache’s part or the final nail in the coffin of Daniel’s dreams. Daniel speaks to the only student he knows, in one single close-up, in his only extended monologue in the whole movie:

DANIEL: I read a book about this guy’s high school years. He said his French professor really made him sick when he lectured about passion in the works of Racine and Corneille. He said the same things year after year. Finally the words had no sense, no heart. That professor had no business talking about passion. He knew the plays inside-out, but he’d never lived them. Whereas the student felt he would live those passions later on…. Any opinion?

STUDENT: That you run off at the mouth. Coming to the cafe?

And that’s that. He goes off with some boys to make out with girls and gives up on school. When a girl says she can’t sleep with a boy until they get married, he thinks, “It seemed to me I’d heard it all, that I knew the whole thing by heart.” Eustache committed suicide seven years after this film.

Shchedrin: The Golovlyov Family

It must not be imagined that Iudushka was a hypocrite in the same sense as Tartuffe or any modern French bourgeois who goes off into flights of eloquence on the subject of social morality. No, he was a hypocrite of a purely Russian sort, that is, simply a man devoid of all moral standards, knowing no truth other than the copy-book precepts. He was pettifogging, deceitful, loquacious, boundlessly ignorant, and afraid of the devil. All these qualities are merely negative and can supply no stable material for real hypocrisy.

In France hypocrisy is the outcome of a man’s upbringing; it forms part of “good manners” so to speak, and almost always has a distinct political or social coloring…If this kind of hypocrisy cannot be described as a conviction, it is in any case a banner around which men who find it profitable to be hypocritical in this rather than in some other way can gather. They are conscious hypocrites, that is, they know it themselves and are aware that other people know it too. For a French bourgeois the universe is nothing but a large theater in which an endless play is going on and one hypocrite gives his cue to another.

We Russians have no strongly biased systems of education. We are not drilled, we are not trained to be champions and propagandists of this or that set of moral principles but are simply allowed to grow as nettles grow by a fence. This is why there are very few hypocrites among us and very many liars, bigots, and babblers. We have no need to be hypocritical for the sake of any fundamental social principles, for we have no such principles and do not take shelter under any one of them. We exist quite freely, i.e. we vegetate, babble, and lie spontaneously, without any principles.

Whether this is a matter for grieving or rejoicing is not for me to say. I think, however, that while hypocrisy may arouse fear and indignation, objectless lying makes one feel bored and disgusted. And so the best thing is not to discuss the advantages or disadvantages of the conscious as compared with the unconscious hypocrisy, but to keep away both from hypocrites and from liars.

And so Iudushka was a sneak, a liar, and a babbling fool rather than a hypocrite….

The Golovlyov Family (1876)

And so, like a sober, humorless Gogol, Shchedrin sets about proving his point, not just by portraying these characters in unrelentingly brutal detail, but by killing them off rather arbitrarily. In Dostoevsky and in Tolstoy, characters do tend to stick around so they can meet a fate, deserved or undeserved, that serves some dramatic or moral purpose. Shchedrin kills off characters prematurely to foreclose any possibility of redemption, though it quickly becomes clear there was never a chance anyway. What begins as a character sketch ends with that same character dying. Even by Russian standards, this is a miserable book.

I don’t know if Shchedrin had read Burke or Diderot, to whom he seems to be responding here, but his point that hypocrisy implies a bourgeois sort of moral self-awareness is well-taken, and I would say I see Shchedrin’s sort of hypocrite a lot more often than Rameau’s Nephew.

Alain Resnais: Night and Fog

I don’t have a lot to say about Resnais’s 1955 Holocaust documentary, but 50 years later, these are the things–next to the horror–that stood out to me.

Jews are mentioned exactly once during the thirty minutes of the film. Writer Jean Cayrol, the author of the voiceover narration, gives three examples of people being deported to the camps, one named by occupation, one by nationality, and one by religion. Jews are not mentioned when Cayrol describes the “arbitrary hierarchy” of the camps;he only names resistance members and foreigners. Cayrol was himself a resistance member who was brought to the camps; I know little else about him. The yellow triangles, however, are much more prominent in the images than any of the other indicia.

I don’t have the background to know the particular reasons for this: this was 1955, before, as Peter Novick observed, the Holocaust had come to be defined as it is commonly thought of today. But I find James Leahy’s explanation unconvincing at best:

Like Robin Wood, Roger Michael rejects the generality of the film’s message:

If Night and Fog can work in French Resistance fighters and Spanish Republicans unjustly deported from France and cruelly murdered at Mauthausen, why can it not identify the special and prime targets of the Nazis–the Jews, who died their deaths not in the hundreds or in the thousands, but in the millions?

Knowledge and memory change with time (coincidentally, this is one of Resnais’ thematic concerns, here and elsewhere). When the film was made, a decade after the end of the war and the discovery of the camps, nobody needed to be reminded who had been “the special and prime targets of the Nazis,” even if, perhaps guiltily, officialdom was reluctant to talk about all that had happened.

I think not; people’s memories can be very, very short. This is not to find Resnais and the other historic figures who worked on the film–Chris Marker, Sacha Vierny, Hanns Eisler–complicit, but there is an untold story here that nagged at me.

One story that is told is that the French authorities censored one bit of the film:

Night and Fog, cited by Roberto Rossellini as the most important film of the post-war years, ran into trouble with the French censors. They forced us to mask the cap of a French policeman who was supervising the deportation of the Jews who had been herded into the Vel-d’Hiv’. The cap–the unmistakable characteristic of the French police–was proof of institutional collaboration in the Holocaust.

And it’s not hard for me to imagine that Marcel Ophuls heard this story and that it only added fuel to the fire when he was making The Sorrow and the Pity.

J.M. Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello

What a frustrating book this is. I have had varied responses to much of Coetzee’s fiction, finding it anywhere from brilliant (Waiting for the Barbarians) to bloodless (Disgrace) to pretentious (Foe), so I didn’t get around to his first post-Nobel fiction until now. But I must say that I admire his willigness to put out a book that will completely alienate Nobel punters, as well as be so open to misinterpretation.

The book is a collection of “stories” (“Lessons”, they’re titled) about the elderly writer Costello, who, having long ago written a famous revisionist version of Ulysses from Molly’s point of view (called The House on Eccles Street), now listlessly attends conferences on various literary topics. She has no passion for these topics, and no shortage of contempt for the fanboys and other writers that attend the conferences. The one issue that does stir her to her feet is animal rights, which she pursues with the single-minded intolerance of the zealot, comparing animal slaughter to the Holocaust.

Few of the reviews of Elizabeth Costello have addressed some of the most perplexing problems of the narrative. James Wood, always keen on religious readings of fiction, insists on a liturgical interpretation:

Far from being evasive, I think that Coetzee is passionately confessing, and that his entire book vibrates with confession. The reference to Ivan Ilyich is the key. Simply put, Coetzee’s subject is death. Costello’s lectures are about the lives of animals, and that means also the human animal. It is by contemplating her own death that she can enter the suffering – the millions of deaths – of animals. Our mortality is animal mortality. And likewise, to think about animal death is to think of our own death.

What Wood ignores is how truly obnoxious Costello is. Her empathy for animals rings false because she treats those around her (her son, her colleagues, her ex-lovers, her fans) like garbage, simultaneously condescending to them while demanding indulgence for everthing she does. Worse, she’s hardly eloquent. Her arguments are irrational, trite, and mindlessly syllogistic:

“As for animals being too dumb and stupid to speak for themselves, consider the following sequence of events. When Albert Camus was a young boy in Algeria, his grandmother told him to bring her one of the hens from the cage in their backyard. He obeyed, then watched her cut off its head with a kitchen knife, catching its blood in a bowl so that the floor would not be dirtied.

“The death cry of that hen imprinted itself on the boy’s memory so hauntingly that in 1958 he wrote an impassioned attack on the guillotine. As a result, in part, of that polemic, capital punishment was abolished in France. Who is to say, then, that the hen did not speak?”

If I were Coetzee, I would be very worried that after writing a book in which specious arguments such as this take up so much room, the arguments would be mistakenly attributed to me. (Justifiably so: The Observer condemns him for holding Costello’s opinions, and David Lodge’s review gives entirely too much credit to her opinions.) Indeed, had I not read Coetzee’s other work and his essays, I’d be tempted to assign these views to him. But Coetzee has never written like this. His criticism is coldly rational, well-researched, and often insightful. (I highly recommend his book of essays Stranger Shores.) And I cannot imagine that Coetzee would ever take seriously the theses of Costello’s speeches. Coetzee has compared Costello to Christa Wolf and Doris Lessing, and I don’t believe the comparison is meant to be flattering. Both writers are polemicists notorious for deducing fictional circumstances from preconceived ideas, and so it is with Costello. She is partly, but not entirely, Coetzee’s strawman.

Oliver Herford’s perceptive review in the TLS is the only one to have gotten at Costello’s lapses qua fiction:

Costello is impatient of the proprieties of public argumentation, preferring “to think in similitudes rather than reason things out”. This is a novelist’s failing, perhaps, but it occasions some spectacular lapses. She starts, too, from positions of provoking extremity…but passes rapidly from violent identification to a blank disbelief in what she has undertaken to say.

Elizabeth Costello is a thin, disagreeable character and an obvious contrivance – an unreliable surrogate whose obsessions and inconsistencies are conventionally opposed but never effectually challenged; she does not stay even to answer her own idle self-questioning, of which there is an exasperating amount.

All this is painfully illustrated when Costello interprets other works of literature and philosophy. Herford points out that her interpretation of Kafka’s “Report to an Academy” is absurdly off the mark, but so are all of her interpretations. She disagrees with Thomas Nagel, saying she can know what it is like to be a bat. Of “A Modest Proposal,” she says:

If it is atrocious to kill and eat human babies, why is it not atrocious to kill and eat piglets? If you want Swift to be a dark ironist rather than a facile pamphleteer, you might examine the premises that make his fable so easy to digest.

In passages like these Costello reminds you of your freshman year roommate who lambasted you all year long for eating meat before giving up vegetarianism sophomore year. Or consider this gem concerning Ulysses, which she purportedly knew well enough to rewrite:

I do not like that other world, writes Martha Clifford to her pen pal Leopold Bloom, but she lies: why would she write at all if she did not want to be swept off to another world by a demon lover?

Martha Clifford’s typo (she meant “word”) has all sorts of resonances, but Coetzee’s meaning is clear: Costello has forgotten the context and has freely interpreted the passage to mean whatever she wants it to mean. She has imposed a tyranny of her own private meanings on everyone and everything.

And ultimately she is a tyrant, especially to her long-suffering son but also to nearly everyone she meets. Her “empathy” is actually the narcissistic projection of one’s own self on to the faces of the downtrodden, a common ailment of the terminally myopic. She sympathizes with people by imagining they feel just like her, unless they disagree with her, in which case she quickly dismisses them as inhuman morons. So it is with literature; if she cannot see herself in it, she dismisses it.

As a satire of the caprices of writers and of the unquestioning authority granted to their polemical pronoucements, Elizabeth Costello is grimly amusing, almost a middle finger to the Nobel Committee. (I suspect that Coetzee is deeply uneasy with their elevation of so many writers with deep moral flaws.) It’s hard not to agree with him after reading things like an interview with the hatefully senile Felipe Alfau. (Thank you Maud Newton for the link.) But especially in the last two sections, which are revisionist versions of Kafka’s “Before the Law” and Hofmannsthal’s “The Lord Chandos Letter”, Coetzee changes the terms. In the first, Costello is denied admission to heaven because she refuses to profess belief in any particular thing. In the second, she takes on the role of Lord Chandos’s wife, and portrays his epiphanies as those of Icarus:

But how I ask you can I live with rats and dogs and beetles crawling through me day and night, drowning and gasping, scratching at me, tugging me, urging me deeper and deeper into revelation–how? We are not made for revelation, I want to cry out, nor I nor you, my Philip, revelation that sears the eye like staring into the sun.

If this is the final “Lesson,” then the object of the lessons has been Costello herself. She has not practiced literary criticism or philosophy over the course of the book, but has she practiced literature? If so, what price has she paid for it? Hofmannsthal gave us the image of a man overwhelmed with profundity that transcended language, yet he expressed it so eloquently that it was easy to believe him. Whatever profundity that Costello has private access to, she is unable to express it: not through misinterpreting other people’s works, not through angry screeds, not through interpersonal relationships. Yet it clearly causes her torment, and for this she does deserve our sympathy. I think that this is what separates Coetzee’s book from the seemingly endless river of literature portraying writers in various states of breakdown and uncommunication: given the abnormality of the writer, he is more willing to see writers in the context of societal normality rather than placing them at the center. Elizabeth Costello is ultimately a portrait of a marginal figure, and her inner pain seems all the more disproportionate for it.

The book also appears to indict much writerly discourse, yet other people over the course of the book speak quite cogently, usually when calmly destroying Costello’s arguments. No, the problem is quite clearly with Costello herself, and since we are never given evidence of Costello’s prior writing talent, it’s impossible to say whether her reputation is deserved. No doubt she is unique and uniquely tormented, but what of it?

Throughout the book, people make the mistake of engaging in discourse with Costello to no positive effect. Perhaps Coetzee wishes to separate literature from the realm of debate, saying that writers are not the sort to participate in argument. They are best left alone to write their books, which then the public can make sense of. But beyond that, Coetzee makes a statement on how dangeous it is to take authors at their intent and at their literal meaning, as well as point out how authors can be their own worst advocates. Coetzee in his essays reads for subtext and subtlety, often questioning the placement of an idea in a literary work rather than engaging with it. With Elizabeth Costello, he has written a work that acts as a warning, since considering Costello’s ideas only leads to silliness and frustration.

The reaction of people to the book–predominantly a willingness to take Costello’s views seriously, as no critic other than Herford mentions Costello’s series of grotesque misreadings of other authors–seems to confirm Coetzee’s concerns. But Coetzee is not so monolithically harsh, since the book is simultaneously a portrait of the vacant inside of one of these authors, and her inability to believe anything truly. Is this, asks Coetzee, who we want to argue with and interpret? Is it wise to hold up the figure of the author and deem him or her a seer, a prophet, or a truthteller? No, better to treat the books autonomously and dispense with the author.

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