Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Sarcasm

For me, letters to the editor are one of the most entertaining parts of the Guardian. Here is a splendid contribution from today's edition. (David Irving is a British historian that has recently been sentenced to three years in prison by an Austrian court because of his violations of Austrian laws against holocaust denial.)

David Irving need not worry too much. I've researched the matter thoroughly and concluded that the prison in Vienna doesn't exist, never did exist and certainly no one was incarcerated there.
     David Rosenberg
     London

[source]

It's a pity that the letters to the editor in our newspapers are rarely so witty and funny. Most of them are simply boring. There is a handful of kooks that write regularly and on a wide variety of topics, but they usually take themselves too seriously to be amusing.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

BOOK: Bertrand Russell, "Autobiography" (cont.)

Bertrand Russell: Autobiography. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. 041522862X. xv + 742 pp. (Initially published in three volumes, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967, 1968, 1969.)

[Continued from last week.]

In the post-WW2 years, most of his work was dedicated to various efforts to prevent further wars, especially wars with nuclear weapons. This is the subject of much of the last third of his autobiography; for me, this was perhaps the least interesting part of his autobiography. I guess I'll never be able to truly appreciate how it must have felt in the cold war years when many people genuinely worried about the possibility that a nuclear world war might erupt and bring about the extinction of the vast majority of people in the world. One of the earliest memories from my childhood is hearing news on the radio about one of the Reagan-Gorbachev negotiations to curtail the nuclear arms race. By then, the mid-80s, the threat of nuclear war seemed so remote as to be of no consequence. MAD may sound insane, but I really think it worked jolly well. And yet it seems clear that for many people in the 50s, 60, perhaps 70s, nuclear war was an entirely realistic concern.

Russell felt that, now that the major powers are in possession of nuclear weapons, any large-scale war between them would be disastrous for the whole world; therefore, wars must be prevented altogether. As long as nuclear weapons exist, there is also the possibility of a nuclear war being started by accident or mistake; therefore, we should try to decrease the amount of nuclear weapons in existence as much as possible. In the long term, there should be a world government with, of course, sufficient power on its side as to be able to act like a world policeman and force individual countries to abandon wars.

Of course he was aware that there are many obstacles to this idea of a world government. For example, people are still often taught to be ‘patriots’: “At present, children are taught to love their country to the exclusion of other countries, and among their countrymen in history those whom they are specially taught to admire are usually those who have shown most skill in killing foreigners.” (P. 680.)

Regarding a world government, there is a very interesting remark on p. 681: “Every technical advance in armaments has involved an increase in the size of States. [. . .] weapons of mass destruction have made even the greatest States liable to complete destruction.” But I doubt if this fact alone will be sufficient to encourage the individual states to accept a world-government above them. In the past, the reason why advances in military technology led to increases in the size of states was because there were many states that competed against each other, and those that weren't large enough to keep up with the technical development of armaments would eventually lose in this struggle and would be swallowed by other states. But now a superpower can in principle always defend itself from attack by other superpowers, at least by destroying the whole world with nuclear weapons. Therefore there is nothing to really encourage the next step in the growth of states, namely to a world-state. Either one state would have to become so much stronger and more advanced than others as to be able to conquer and occupy them despite the fact that they have nuclear weapons (which, of course, just might happen, given that the U.S. spends more money on its army than the next twenty countries put together); or there would have to be some external enemy (e.g. Martians :-)), which would enable the states to step together and form some kind of federation.

He also wrote some fiction in this period. “The writing of these stories was a great release of my hitherto unexpressed feelings and of thoughts which could not be stated without mention of fears that had no rational basis.” (P. 525.)

He visited Greece in 1952. “At Tiryns, the guardian of the ancient citadel bemoaned the fact that it had been very badly restored. Upon being asked when this distressing renovation had taken place, he replied, ‘During the Mycenaean times’.” (P. 560.)

“I realised then that the Christian outlook had a firmer hold upon me than I had imagined. The hold was not upon my beliefs, but upon my feelings. It seemed to me that where the Greeks differed from the modern world it was chiefly through the absence of a sense of sin, and I realised with some astonishment that I, myself, am powerfully affected by this sense in my feelings though not in my beliefs.” (P. 561.)

His various anti-nuclear efforts in the post-war decades included, for example, preparing various broadcasts on this subject for the BBC (p. 564); he prepared a manifesto against nuclear weapons and got a number of eminent scientists, from both East and West, to sign it (pp. 566–71; Einstein was among the signatories as well; he signed it mere days before his death, p. 567); attended numerous conferences and meetings; wrote an open letter to Eisenhower and Khrushchev (addressing them as “Most Potent Sirs”, p. 596); participated in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (which advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament of Britain; p. 596); as well as in the Direct Action Committee (which tried to bring these issues to the notice of the public through nonviolent protests and civil disobedience; p. 597; e.g. a large sit-down in Trafalgar Square on February 18, 1961; p. 607), and later the Committee of 100 (pp. 605, 632); he wrote a book titled Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (pp. 598–9); he wrote a letter to U Thant with suggestions on organizing a ‘Balancing Committee’ to mediate East-West problems (p. 647); letters to Nehru and Chou En-Lai, encouraging a peaceful settlement of the Sino-Indian border dispute (pp. 648–51); etc. He also made efforts to help people who are unjustly imprisoned (p. 653). Finally the work and expenses grew beyond what he could personally handle, so he established two non-profit foundations to carry on the work (the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and the Atlantic Peace Foundation; pp. 656–8).

Here's a curious observation he wrote in 1950, living in the same house as his son John and John's wife Susan: “I suffer also from entering into the lives of John and Susan. They were born after 1914, and are therefore incapable of happiness.” (P. 582.) Of course, if taken literally, such a statement is ridiculous. But what he means, I guess, is that he feels the first world war brought a major and fundamental change in the outlook of the people; that there was a really important difference between the optimistic belief in progress that characterized much of the 18th and 19th centuries, all the way up to the WW1, and the post-WW1 period, where any such optimism was impossible after the war(s) showed all too clearly how great is the risk that human civilization will eventually destroy itself. We often imagine that there must have been such a change in outlook; but it's a rare instance that I see someone describe it so explicitly as to say that people born after 1914 are incapable of happiness. Of course, we must admit that this is far from the first instance in history when many people felt that everything is going irremediably down the drain. After all, we know the famous sentence of Talleyrand: “He who has not lived in the years before the revolution [of 1789] cannot know what the sweetness of living is.” And undoubtedly the Romans were saying the same things after being overrun by the barbarians in the fifth century.

Here's a comment in a similar vein, on the pre-WW1 period: “When I was young, Victorian optimism was taken for granted. It was thought that freedom and prosperity would spread gradually throughout the worl dby an orderly process, and it was hoped that cruelty, tyranny, and injustice would countinually diminish. Hardly anyone was haunted by the fear of great wars.” (P. 726.)

He briefly mentions that he had supported eugenics at some point but doesn't give any details (p. 595). Given how notorious eugenics became later, it would be interesting to know more about this.

An interesting observation from his article Pros and Cons of Reaching Ninety, published in The Observer (May 13, 1962): “It is a curious sensation to read the journalistic clichés which come to be fastened on past periods that one remembers, such as the ‘naughty nineties’ and the ‘riotous twenties’. Those decades did not seem, at the time, at all ‘naughty’ or ‘riotous’. The habit of affixing easy labels is convenient to those who wish to seem clever without having to think, but it has very little relation to reality.” (P. 628.) I guess that with these stereotypes, there's usually a small grain of truth at the core, but it's then blown out of all proportion by journalists, memoirists, and other similar people. This reminds me of the well-known Italian proverb: “even if it isn't true, at least it's a story well told”. In these circumstances, truth usually succumbs easily and without putting up much of a fight.

Another interesting passage from the same article: he comments that many people become mellow and acquiescing as they grow older. But not he: “Serenity, in the present world, can only be achieved through blindness or brutality. [. . .] I become gradually more and more of a rebel. [. . .] Until 1914, I fitted more or less comfortably into the world as I found it. [. . .] Without having the temperament of a rebel, the course of events has made me gradually less and less able to acquiesce patiently in what is happening.” (P. 629.) This is the sort of thing that I find really admirable about Russell. Most people are perhaps rebellious in youth but become conventional or even conservative in old age. He, however, was willing to insist on what he felt was right, and to argue incessantly in its favour, no matter what the conventions or prevalent opinions thought of it at the time.

A splendid passage from a 1961 anti-nuclear speech, which, as he says, the media have delighted in taking out of context ever since (pp. 640–1): “We used to think that Hitler was wicked when he wanted to kill all the Jews, but Kennedy and Macmillan and others both in the East and in the West pursue policies which will probably lead to killing not only all the Jews but all the rest of us too. [. . .] I will not pretend to obey a government which is organising the massacre of the whole of mankind. [. . .] We cannot obey these murderers. They are wicked and abominable. They are the wickedest people that ever lived in the history of man and it is our duty to do what we can.” (However, this passage is now somewhat marred by the unfortunate fact that ‘wicked’ is more and more often used with a positive connotation, at least in some parts of the English-speaking world.)

One Lord Gladwyn wrote to Russell, commenting on his plans to set up a foundation: “I should hope that you would one day be prepared to advance your proposals in the House of Lords where they could be subjected to intelligent scrutiny.” (P. 694.) Russell comments (p. 659): “I refrained, in my reply, from remarking that on the occasions when I had advanced proposals in the House of Lords, I had never perceived that my audience, with a few exceptions, showed any peculiar degree of intelligence”.

On the war in Indo-China: “The pretexts for the ‘escalation’, particularly the attack upon North Vietnam, reminded me of nothing less than those offered a quarter of a century earlier for Hitler's adventures in Europe.” (P. 667.) In response to the atrocities being perpetrated in Vietnam, he “wrote to a number of people around the world, inviting them to join an International War Crimes Tribunal” (ibid.). The idea was to investigate the atrocities and conduct hearings. Although the tribunal of course had no formal authority, its composition (see the list of members at its Wikipedia page) and methods of work certainly gave it great moral weight. Incidentally, the tribunal also included the Yugoslav historian Vladimir Dedijer; a couple of years ago I've read his exhaustive (and exhausting) book The Road to Sarajevo on the background of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

[To be continued in a few days.]

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Table of Contents

Sometimes I try to find my post about a particular book, and it's getting a bit difficult to keep in mind which month I've posted about which book. So I decided to set up a table of contents; I'll update it when I post something new; and there's a link to it from the sidebar so it'll always be just a click away.

Contents

[N.B. Although this post is originally from February 2006, it isn't out of date — I always update it when I add new posts to the blog.]

History — Ancient

History — Medieval

History — WW1

History — WW2 — Memoirs and Contemporary Accounts

History — WW2 — Modern Studies

Poetry

Fiction

Nonfiction — other

I Tatti Renaissance Library

Scottish interest

Mitford interest

Folklore, mythology, etc.

Happy Valley

Paranormal — Bermuda Triangle

Paranormal — UFOs

Knjige v slovenščini

Fin de Siècle

Non-book-related

Labels:

Thursday, February 09, 2006

BOOK: Bertrand Russell, "Autobiography"

Bertrand Russell: Autobiography. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. 041522862X. xv + 742 pp. (Initially published in three volumes, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967, 1968, 1969.)

I'm not sure when or where I first heard of Russell. Some years ago, circa 2000 I think, I read his History of Western Philosophy. I must admit that philosophy is not a very favourite topic of mine. I've read the Presocratics, a bit of Plato, Spinoza's Ethics, Seneca's letters to Lucilius, and more or less nothing else. I often felt, to borrow Fitzgerald's phrase, that I “came out by the same door where in I went”. Philosophy is all right if one enjoys abstract speculation, wrangling with words, pointless bickering about their meaning, etc.; but the word is supposed to mean ‘love of wisdom’, and I certainly rarely felt any wiser after reading some work of philosophy. It turns out that Russell's approach to writing the history of philosophy is absolutely perfect for a person like me. He has a robustly critical opinion of many famous philosophers, and never hesitates to admit it when he feels that some philosopher has been guilty of introducing muddle-headed notions or that his works and ideas are confusing. He is very good at explaining things in an intelligible way; his prose is remarkably clear; it also includes many amusing and funny passages. I enjoyed that book immensely, and heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the history of philosophy.

Not long afterwards, I noticed that Russell also wrote an autobiography, and encouraged by the good experience with his History of Philosophy, I bought the autobiography and started reading it. Unfortunately I got hopelessly bogged down somewhere in the sixth chapter, about 200 pages into the book. I put it back on the shelf and watched it with a vague sense of disgust for the next four or five years. Then, last December, I started reading it again on my daily bus-rides to work and back; that's a splendid opportunity for reading less-than-ideally-interesting books, because there's nothing else for you to do, and willy-nilly you will end up reading one or two dozen pages per day. Having now waded my way through the book, I must admit that much of it is actually fairly interesting, but there are also many boring passages where I found it preferable to read quickly and not bother too much with the details. Each chapter is divided into two parts: first the narrative of that period of his life, and then a selection of letters (both to and from him) and other documents from that period. Most of the boredom comes from the letters, although many of them are also interesting.

Russell had a long and active life, with the result that this autobiography touches on a number of different topics, he encounters a great number of people from various walks of life, etc.; I think this is where the main interest of the book lies. He was from a famous aristocratic family, and his grandfather had served as the British prime minister in the mid-19th century. Russell's parents died when he was very young, so he was mostly brought up by his paternal grandmother (p. 17). A number of 19th-century notabilities make their appearance in the first chapter. “Turgeniev once gave her one of his novels, but she never read it, or regarded him as anything but the cousin of some friends of hers” (p. 16). Gladstone comes to tea on p. 29, and for dinner on p. 51. Russell in his youth apparently met Robert Browning several times (p. 38).

A bizarre anecdote from his childhood: “I was not allowed an orange as there was an unalterable conviction that fruit is bad for children” (p. 23).

His maternal grandmother: “ ‘Don't you know,’ she said, ‘that you should never talk about any fractions except halves and quarters? — it is pedantic!’ ‘I know it now,’ I replied. ‘How like his father!’ she said, turning to my Aunt Maude.” (P. 27.) In general, few of the adults among whom he grew up had any appreciation of his emerging intelectual skills and interests (pp. 17, 39–40), and in this respect it was a great relief for him when he started studying at Cambridge and became friends with other bright students: “the discovery that I could say things that I thought, and be answered with neither horror nor derision but as if I had said something quite sensible, was intoxicating.” (p. 60). The professors, however, were largely useless, although they do provide a few curious anecdotes on pp. 62–4.

His acquaintances at Cambridge later also included J. M. Keynes and Lytton Strachey (pp. 67–9). “It is surprising how great a change in mental climate those ten years had brought. We were still Victorian; they were Edwardian. We believed in ordered progress by means of politics and free discussion. [. . .] The generation of Keynes and Lytton did not seek to preserve any kinship with the Philistine. They aimed rather at a life or retirement among fine shades and nice feelings, and conceived of the good as consisting in the pasisonate mutual admirations of a clique of the élite.” (P. 67.)

Other notable people he knew: Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the Fabian socialists (pp. 73–6); Jane Ellen Harrison (pp. 165, 223); E. D. Morel (p. 261); T. S. Eliot (pp. 220–1); Wittgenstein (pp. 329–31).

His first wife, Alys, had been a good friend of Walt Whitman (p. 72). Alys's older sister later got married to Bernard Berenson (p. 129). Alys's brother was an essayist and critic named Logan Pearsall Smith, who “indoctrinated me with the culture of the nineties — Flaubert, Walter Pater, and the rest. [. . .] I learned to make sentences full of parentheses in the style of Walter Pater. I learned the right thing to say about Manet, and Monet, and Degas, who were in those days what Matisse and Picasso were at a later date” (p. 77).

Russell's family was not very enthusiastic about his engagement to Alys; his grandmother even got him to accept a diplomatic job in Paris for three months to “to see whether separation would lessen my infatuation” (p. 83); it didn't, and they got married immediately after his return.

Alys and her family were Quakers. In their letters to each other, Russell and Alys adopted the Quaker custom of addressing each other as ‘thee’ rather than ‘you’ (p. 134). The bizarre thing about this is that they always use ‘thee’, even in the nominative case where one would expect ‘thou’; and that they always combine this ‘thee’ with the modern third-person forms of the verbs: “Thee may read what thee likes of this” (p. 99). I really don't see the point of that. If you must go for archaic forms, why not ‘thou may'st’ and ‘thou likest’ and so on? Perhaps the motivation here is that ‘thee’ is always an object, with some unidentified and unnamed ‘it’ as the subject (which accounts for the third-person forms of the verbs), analogous to the construction that gave rise to the word ‘methinks’. But why? Were the Quakers trying to imply that a person's actions are really inspired by some external entity, e.g. by god or fate or something like that?

“ ‘I don't quite understand your not liking Frenchmen — is it simply because they're unchaste? It is very disgusting — all the ones here from instance fornicate pretty regularly from 16 years old [. . .] — but it's merely a matter of education, and one can't object to individual people because they behave in the way they've been brought up to.” (Edward Marsh, 1894, writing from Heidelberg to Russell in Paris, p. 112.)

“Leibniz wished to be well thought of, so he published only his second-rate work. All his best work remained in manuscript. Subsequent editors, publishing only what they thought best, continued to leave his best work unprinted.” (P. 136.)

The first part of Russell's career was mostly devoted to rather arduous work on the foundations of mathematics. This culminated in the famous three-volume Principia Mathematica, which he and Whitehead published in 1910–13 (“in the end the work was finished, but my intellect never quite recovered from the strain”, p. 155). “The University Press estimated that there would be a loss of £600 on the book, and while the syndics were willing to bear a loss of £300, they did not feel that they could go above this figure. The Royal Society very generously contributed £200, and the remaining £100 we had to find ourselves. We thus earned minus £50 each by ten years' work. This beats the record of Paradise Lost.” (P. 155.) Regarding Paradise Lost, I found this in the Wikipedia article on Milton: “blind and impoverished he sold the publishing rights to this work on April 27th that year for £10”.

In the early years of the 20th century, he started becoming more and more interested in political questions. He supported free trade and opposed the protectionist policies of Joseph Chamberlain. He supported the female suffrage movement and even stood for parliament in 1907 (p. 156). “When, in later years, I campaigned against the first world war, the popular opposition that I encountered was not comparable to that which the suffragists met in 1907.” (P. 156; even quite a few women opposed it, p. 158.)

He occasionally had bouts of profound pessimism, and even contemplated suicide. “Although I denied it when Leonard Hobhouse said so, philosophy seems to me on the whole a rather hopeless business.” (Letter to Gilbert Murray, December 28, 1902; p. 166.) “[T]he only thing that I strongly feel worth while would be to murder as many people as possible so as to diminish the amount of consciousness in the world.” (To Murray, March 21, 1903, p. 167.) “All's well that ends well; which is the epitaph I should put on my tombstone if I were the last man left alive.” (To Lucy Donnely, April 22, 1906, p. 190.) But later, during his serious illness in China: “I had always iamgined until then that I was fundamentally pessimistic and did not greatly value being alive. I discovered that in this I had been completely mistaken, and that life was infinitely sweet to me.” (P. 364.)

“What a monstrous thing that a University should teach journalism! I thought that was only done at Oxford. This respect for the filthy multitude is ruining civilisation.” (On hearing that it was going to be taught at Harvard, in a letter to Lucy Martin Donnely, July 6, 1902, p. 168.)

“But a life in books has great calm and peace — it is true that a terrible hunger for something less thin comes over one, but one is spared from remorse and horror and torture and the maddening poison of regret.” (Letter to Lucy Donnely, September 1, 1902, p. 170.) I suppose I should take heart from this, as I after all also have ‘a life in books’ (or at any rate I have no life outside books). But I'm not quite sure if Russell is right here. How well does he know a life wholly in books, after all? His life was quite active; four marriages, numerous friendships, political work, activism, copious correspondence, etc., etc. Sure, in a bookish life one is spared certain kinds of remorse and regret. But surely there is also a very terrible sense of regret which attacks specifically those that have withdrawn into a ‘life in books’: the regret that you are missing all this splendid, fascinating, vigorous life out there, the life of the world, all happening just outside your doorstep, so seemingly close to you and yet so completely beyond your reach. There is the feeling that the life in the world is so much better, so much more real, so much more worth living than the life in books. Well, he does sort of acknowledge this problem, by mentioning the “terrible hunger for something less thin”. ‘Thin’ is a very apt word, I think; and I can't help wondering if he didn't underestimate how terrible this hunger really is.

“Only in thought is man a God; in action and desire we are the slaves of circumstance.” (To Lucy Donnely, November 25, 1902, p. 172.) This quote forms an interesting contrast with the famous sentence from Holderlin's Hyperion: “Man is a god when he dreams, a beggar when he thinks.” I guess this is the difference between a rationalist and a romantic outlook. But there is, I think, some truth in both.

Of a certain Werner, a South African millionaire: “a fat, eupeptic German with an equally fat gold watch-chain and a strong German accent (characteristic of all the finest types of British imperialists)” (letter to Lucy Donnely, February 8, 1905, p. 181). This reminds me of this splendid cartoon.

Russell became good friends with Joseph Conrad, thanks to their mutual acquaintance, Ottoline Morrell (pp. 216–19). Russell even named one of his sons John Conrad in his honour (p. 218).

Russell was dismayed by the outbreak of the first world war, and “what filled me with even more horror was the fact that the anticipation of carnage was delightful to something like ninety per cent of the population” (p. 240). He became one of Britain's leading pacifists.

His opposition to the war led to a curious short-lived friendship with D. H. Lawrence: “Pacifism had produced in me a mood of bitter rebellion, and I found Lawrence equally full of rebellion. This made us think, at first, that there was a considerable measure of agreement between us, and it was only gradually that we discovered that we differed from each other more than either differed from the Kaiser.” (P. 243.) “I was a firm believer in democracy, whereas he had developed the whole philosophy of Fascism before the politicians had thought of it.” (P. 244.) “He had a mystical philosophy of ‘blood’ which I disliked. [. . .] This seemed to me frankly rubbish, and I rejected it vehemently, though I did not then know that it led straight to Auschwitz.” (P. 245.) I don't know much about Lawrence (I read his Lady Chatterley's Lover in great haste some ten or so years ago, and remember almost nothing about it except that I rather enjoyed it; I also tried to read some of Lawrence's Italian travel writing, but found it immensely boring and well-nigh impenetrable); this is the first time I hear about these proto-Fascist leanings of his. Perhaps I should find some book on this topic and add it to my to-read list.

He had an affair with the actress Colette O'Niel. “At Christmas I went to stay at Garsington, where there was a large party. Keynes was there, and read the marriage service over two dogs, ending: ‘Who man hath joined, let not dog put asunder.’ Lytton Strachey was there and read us the manuscript of Eminent Victorians.” (P. 250.)

He attended a meeting in support of the February revolution in Russia. A mob broke in. “Two of the drunken viragos began to attack me with their boards full of nails. While I was wondering how one defended oneself against this type of attack, one of the ladies among us went up to the police and suggested that they should defend me. The police, however, merely shrugged their shoulders. ‘But he is an eminent philosopher’, said the lady, and the police still shrugged. ‘But he is famous all over the world as a man of learning’, she continued. The police remained unmoved. ‘But he is the brother of an earl’ she finally cried. At this, the police rushed to my assistance.” (Pp. 254–5.)

During the war, he was imprisoned for six months due to an article he had written in favour of the peace. On arrival, the prison warder “had to take particulars about me. He asked my religion and I replied ‘agnostic’. He asked how to spell it, and remarked with a sigh: ‘Well, there are many religions, but I suppose they all worship the same God.’ This remark kept me cheerful for about a week.” (P. 257.)

As part of his pacifist efforts, he had also campaigned for the rights of conscientious objectors. “The military age was raised in 1918, and for the first time I became liable to military service, which I should of course have had to refuse. They called me up for medical examination, but the Government with its utmost efforts was unable to find out where I was, having forgotten that it had put me in prison. If the War had continued I should very soon have found myself in prison again as a conscientious objector.” (P. 326.)

In 1920 he travelled to Russia as part of a Labour party delegation. Unlike some of the other members, he was not favourably impressed by the new communist state. “Cruelty, poverty, suspicion, persecution, formed the very air we breathed. [. . .] There was a hypocritical pretence of equality, and everybody was called ‘tovarisch’, but it was amazing how differently this word could be pronounced according as the person addressed was Lenin or a lazy servant.” (P. 333.) “Yet I think it the right government for Russia at this moment. If you ask yourself how Dostoevsky's characters should be governed, you will understand.” (Letter to Ottoline Morrell, 25 June 1920, p. 354.)

Soon after his return, he was invited to China, to lecture for a year (p. 341). During the voyage to China, a group of English businessmen asked him about his impressions of Russia. “In view of the sort of people they were, I said only favourable things about the Soviet Government, so there was nearly a riot” (p. 358).

On his interpreter in China: “His English was very good and he was especially proud of his ability to make puns in English. His name was Mr Chao and, when I showed him an article that I had written called ‘Causes of the Present Chaos’, he remarked, ‘Well, I suppose, the causes of the present Chaos are the previous Chaos.’ ” (P. 358.)

His impressions of China and the Chinese were quite positive. “I had not realized until then that a civilised Chinese is the most civilised person in the world.” (P. 359.) He praises their sense of humour (pp. 362–3). “Apart from the influence of Europeans, China makes the impression of what Europe would have become if the eighteenth century had gone on till now without industrialism or the French Revolution. People seem to be rational hedonists, knowing very well how to obtain happiness, exquisite through intense cultivation of their artistic sensibilities, differing from European through the fact that they prefer enjoyment to power.” (To Ottoline Morrell, 28 October 1920, pp. 371–2.) “They are like a nation of artists, with all their good and bvad points. Imagine Gertler and [Augustus] John and Lytton set to govern the British Empire, and you will have some idea how China has been governed for 2,000 years. Lytton is very like an old fashioned Chinaman, not at all like the modern westernised type.” (To Ottoline Morrell, 1921, p. 374.)

He was severely ill for a time during his year in China, and some Japanese journalists spread the news that he was dead. “It provided me with the pleasure of reading my obituary notices, which I had always desired without expecting my wishes to be fulfilled.” (P. 365.) Later, travelling through Japan after he left China: “As the Japanese papers had refused to contradict the news of my death, Dora gave each of them a type-written slip saying that as I was dead I could not be interviewed.” (P. 366.)

He tried running a school for some years, so that he'd be able to raise his children according to his own principles (pp. 387–90). It was, however, a difficult business. There's an interesting exchange of letters with another progressive schoolmaster, A. S. Neill. Neill wanted to employ a Frenchman to teach French, but the ministry of labour refused to issue the necessary permits for the Frenchman unless it could be proven that no British citizen could do the job competently enough (pp. 420–6).

When the second world war approached, he felt he could no longer adhere to the same pacifist principles as he had in the WW1: “I had been able to view with reluctant acquiescence the possibility of the supremacy of the Kaiser's Germany; I thought that, although this would be an evil, it would not be so great an evil as a world war and its aftermath. But Hitler's Germany was a different matter. I found the Nazis utterly revolting — cruel, bigoted, and stupid. Morally and intellectually they were alike odious to me.” At the outbreak of WW2, he decided “I must support what was necessary for victory in the Second War” (p. 430). (He mentions in his letters from the early years of the WW2 that he feels like in the fifth century, “the previous occasion on which the Germans reduced the world to barbarism”; pp. 485, 493.) He has some very reasonable thoughts on the policy of non-violent resistance, which he used to support quite strongly and which had worked fairly well for the Indians trying to free themselves from British rule: “When Indians lay down on railways, and challenged the authorities to crush them under trains, the British found such cruelty intolerable. But the Nazis had no scruples in analogous situations.” Non-violent resistance is reasonable “only when the holders of power were not ruthless beyond a point, and clearly the Nazis went beyond this point.” (P. 431.)

I quite agree with this — against an opponent such as the Nazis, a policy of non-violent resistance would be quite useless. I wonder whether it could have been used against the pre-WW1 German Empire. Suppose that the Entente powers had been unwilling to go to war against Germany and Austria-Hungary; Western Europe would have remained at peace (perhaps the Germans would occupy some French fortifications — at some point, they promised not to attack France if she remained neutral in the war between Germany and Russia, and if she handed over those fortifications as a guarantee of neutrality), but in the East and in the Balkans, Germany and Austria-Hungary would likely annex a lot of territory or convert it into satellite states (as suggested by the treaty of Brest-Litovsk). What would the course of events be like following such an outcome of the war? If the war had been over quickly enough, the Tsar's regime might have remained in power in Russia; likewise, of course, the German and Austro-Hungarian monarchies would have been preserved, and indeed would have grown in prestige and power. Austria-Hugary would not have disintegrated — bad news for its small nations that had been trying for decades to get more autonomy. Without a revolution in Russia, communism would not have became the important force that it actually was throughout much of the 20th century; thus the capitalists of the western countries would not be motivated to support the creation of the welfare state; in Eastern Europe, industrialization would be slower due to the absence of the obsession with heavy industry that was so typical of the capitalists. The German princelings occupying the thrones of the puppet states established in the wake of a German WW1 victory in the east would be content to lord it over the largely peasant populations of their new monarchies in quasi-feudal style, and would not be much motivated to encourage industrialization. I wonder how long the non-democratic character of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian monarchies could have maintained itself; would the Kaisers and the Tsars eventually be forced to accept democratic reforms? How many decades would it all take? Well, at least there would be one good thing about this scenario: no Versailles treaty means no ‘stab in the back’ myth, no war (or a short war involving Central and Eastern Europe only) quite possibly means a considerably less ruined post-war European economy, thus perhaps no roaring twenties in the U.S. but also no great depression, all of which almost certainly means no Nazi regime in Germany. But it doesn't necessarily mean no WW2; Germany, having grown in strength after its successes in the first war, might eventually become embroiled in a war against Britain and France after all, perhaps over the colonies. As for the colonies, their emancipation would almost certainly come about much later than it did, as without the great blood-letting of the two world wars, Britain and France would be in a much better position to oppose the liberation movements in the colonies (nor would their prestige among the colonial population have suffered as much as it actually did). Well, all of this makes for a very fascinating topic — maybe I really should read some what-if book; or at least browse the archives of soc.history.what-if.

“I find I can only understand Wittgenstein when I am in good health, which I am not at the present moment.” (Letter to G. E. Moore, May 8, 1930, p. 439.)

“I do not believe that science per se is an adequate source of happiness, nor do I think that my own scientific outlook has contributed very greatly to my own happiness, which I attribute to defecating twice a day with unfailing regularity.” (Letter to W. W. Norton, the publisher, 27 January 1931, p. 440. I'm not sure if this is the same thing he refers to in his next letter, 17 February 1931, p. 441, where he says: “My method of achieving happiness was discovered by one of the despised race of philosophers, namely, John Locke. You will find it set forth in great detail in his book on education. This is his most important contribution to human happiness; other minor contributions were the English, American, and French revolutions.”) There are several other very sober and reasonable thoughts in that letter. “I think people who are unhappy are always proud of being so, and therefore do not like to be told that there is nothing grand about their unhappiness. A man who is melancholy because lack of exercise has upset his liver always believes that it is the loss of God, or the menace of Bolshevism, or some such dignified cause that makes him sad. When you tell people that happiness is a simple matter, they get annoyed with you.” (Pp. 440–1.)

“I shall keep [a manuscript] by me until the end of May for purposes of revision, and adding malicious footnotes.” (Letter to W. W. Norton, 17 February 1931, p. 441.)

After the death of his brother Frank, Bertrand Russell inherited the title of earl (but nothing else, as Frank Russell had died in bankruptcy). “A title is a great nuisance to me [. . .] There is, so far as I know, only one method of getting rid of it, which is to be attainted of high treason, and this would involve my head being cut off on Tower Hill. This method seems to me perhaps somewhat extreme” (Letter to Norton, 11 March 1931, p. 442.)

He spent the years 1938–44 in America; he was there as a lecturer when the outbreak of the war made return to England difficult, as well as dangerous for Russell's children. His life was made difficult by the protests mounted by a considerable segment of the public as well as of the academic world protested against his supposed immorality (due to his writings in support of such things as atheism and free love). “For example, I was thought wicked for saying that very young infants should not be punished for masturbation.” (P. 461.)

Then there was the question of where to educate his children while they were staying in the U.S. He considered sending his daughter to a secondary school: “But I found that there was only one subject taught that she did not already know, and that was the virtues of the capitalist system. I was therefore compelled, in spite of her youth, to send her to the University.” (P. 460.)

On thinking: “I haven't the vaguest idea either how I think or how one ought to think. The process, so far as I know it, is as instinctive and unconscious as digestion. I fill my mind with whatever relevant knowledge I can find, and just wait. With luck, there comes a moment when the work is done, but in the meantime my conscious mind has been occupied with other things.” (Letter to Gilbert Murray, January 15, 1939, p. 491.)

I was surprised to learn that he didn't understand Greek; I would have naively thought that in the late 19th century Greek would still have been routinely forced upon everyone who wanted to study anything even remotely resembling philosophy. See his letter to Gilbert Murray, 18 January 1941, p. 494.

“Shaw is writing a book — What's What to the Politicians. He has been writing it for many months and would have gone on writing a longer and longer book if he had not been pulled up by the shortness of paper.” (Letter from Beatrice Webb, 17 December 1942, p. 503.)

When Russell and his family were finally about to sail back to England, there were some complications with the bureaucrats at the British embassy. “ I went to Washington to argue that I must be allowed to perform my duties in the House of Lords [. . .] I said to them: ‘You will admit this is a war against Fascism.’ ‘Yes’, they said; ‘And’, I continued, ‘you will admit that the essence of Fascism consists in the subordination of the legislature to the executive’. ‘Yes,’ they said, though with slightly more hesitation. ‘Now,’ I continued, ‘you are the executive and I am the legislature and if you keep me away from my legislative functions one day longer than necessary, you are Fascists.’ Amid general laughter, my sailing permit was granted then and there.” (P. 466.)

During a visit to Norway, he was involved in a seaplane accident, but fortunately survived unscathed. “Everybody plied me with questions. A question even came by telephone from Copenhagen: a voice said, ‘When you were in the water, did you not think of mysticism and logic?’ ‘No’, I said. ‘What did you think of?’ the voice persisted. ‘I thought the water was cold’, I said and put down the receiver.” (P. 512.)

During a visit to Alice Springs, Australia: “I was shown a fine gaol where I was assured that the cells were comfortable. In reply to my query as to why, I was told: ‘Oh, because all the leading citizens at one time or another are in gaol.’ I was told that, expectedly and regularly, whenever possible, they stole each other's sheep.” (P. 517.)

[To be continued in a few days.]

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

BOOK: Lothrop Stoddard, "Into the Darkness"

Lothrop Stoddard: Into the Darkness: Nazi Germany Today. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Inc., 1940. 311 pp.

I first heard of Stoddard in Edwin Black's War Against the Weak, a history of the eugenics movement. Stoddard was a notable supporter of eugenics and wrote several classics of early 20th-century scientific racism, such as The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. A few months ago I noticed several of his books on sale at eBay and decided to buy one of them, but not more: I'm not sure if I'm interested enough to read several of his books, and besides they were priced at about $20 apiece, so not exactly dirt cheap. Now that I look back, I'm not entirely sure why I chose to buy Into the Darkness rather than some other book. I knew that the book was about Stoddard's impressions of Nazi Germany; in fact Black says on p. 317: “His [i.e. Stoddard's] 1940 book, Into the Darkness, celebrated Hitler and Nazi eugenics.” So perhaps I was expecting something rather more lurid, and in this I was somewhat disappointed. Yes, Stoddard is still clearly a supporter of eugenics in this book, just as he had been throughout his life; and it's true that this was getting to be a tad less respectable by that time (the book was published in 1940) than it had been earlier on, before the Nazis had come to power in Germany; but nevertheless eugenics wasn't yet anywhere nearly as firmly part of the lunatic fringe the way it is now. So if we decide to be honest and judge the book by the standards of its time, Stoddard's support for eugenics is probably only very mildly shocking.

Apart from that, there's nothing particularly shocking in this book; Stoddard doesn't express any particular enthusiasm or praise for the Third Reich. On the other hand, it's true that he doesn't go out of his way to explicitly condemn it either; he tries to be a neutral observer, which after all is not completely unreasonable (the U.S. was still neutral at the time). I think his discussion of the Winter Help organization (pp. 170–1) is a nice example of that: he mentions allegations of corruption in the organization, but also says he doesn't know to what extent they are true, and that any rate some poor people definitely have been helped by this organization.

And he makes an honest effort to understand the principles underlying the Nazi state: “National Socialism is not a mere farrago of nonsense; somehow it hangs together—provided you accept its premises. That's the trouble with most argumentation. People ignore or slide over premises and then wrangle bitterly over conclusions.” (P. 265). And: “I am convinced that the [Nazi] ‘Old Guard,’ at any rate, are for the most part, fanatical zealots. If the Nazi thesis were a dialectic screen hiding mere lust for power and pelf, it would never have converted so large a portion of the traditionally honest, idealistic German people. If the Nazi leaders were just a band of cynical adventurers, with tongue in cheek and wholly ‘on the make,’ it would be far easier to deal with them.” (P. 264.)

The book is based on the three or four months that Stoddard spent in Germany as a journalist towards the end of 1939 (after the outbreak of war). It consists of a number of short chapters presenting various aspects of life in the Third Reich at the time.

He managed to interview a number of notable people. Of course, how valuable such interviews are is a debatable matter. Consider the interview with Josef Tiso, the president of the puppet state of Slovakia. He speaks as if everything was quite normal, by some stroke of good luck the Slovaks managed to finally get an independent state of their own, and were now dedicating their energy to the building of their nation. He speaks as if there was no world war going on in Europe, and as if there was no Third Reich whose border began just across the river from the Slovak capital (p. 79; it was entirely due to the Third Reich's machinations and arm-twisting that Slovakia declared ‘independence’ and asked Germany for military ‘protection’: see e.g. Ian Kershaw's Nemesis, ch. 4, sec. III, p. 169). The non-Slovak minorities, he says, will be guaranteed cultural liberty. As for the Slovak parliament, “ ‘There is nothing in the Consitution to prevent the formation of new parties. But there aren't any others just now.’ ” (P. 83.) It just so happens, you see! that “ ‘[i]n the recent elections, the Slovaks were unanimous’ ” — a small coincidence and nothing more. Stoddard comments wryly: “A clever man. He knows all the words.”

He also managed to obtain audiences with Hitler (ch. 17) and Himmler (p. 254). From a professional point of view, these are no doubt non-trivial accomplishments, as neither of them was terribly fond of seeing journalists. But apart from that, both conversations are somewhat anticlimactic. Of course it wouldn't be reasonable to expect anything else — it would hardly be reasonable to expect them to howl with maniacal laughter and explain that they were planning to take over the world. And so Himmler tries to come across as little more than a police chief, the Gestapo merely “ ‘do our best to combat crime of every sort’ ”, habitual offenders really shouldn't “ ‘be at large to plague society, so we keep them locked up’ ” in concentration camps, where “ ‘they are better fed, clothed, and lodged than the miners of South Wales’ ” (p. 256). And if a concerned citizen “ ‘sees traffic on a busy corner badly handled [. . .] all that man has to do is to write us, and I assure you the matter will be quickly righted’ ” (p. 257). As for the German policy in the East, they are merely trying to separate all those quarreling nationalities: “ ‘We have voluntarily withdrawn our German minorities from places like the Baltic States [. . .] Between us and the Poles we seek to fashion a proper racial boundary. Of course, we are going about it slowly—you can't move multitudes of people with their livestock and personal belongings like pawns on a chessboard.’ ” If there is a ‘lie of the century’ award somewhere, surely this must be one of the major contenders. Well, there's one perverse way in which he at least got the “we are going about it slowly” part right — since they didn't much care if the people locked up in the cattle-cars that were carrying them to their deaths reached their destination alive or dead from hunger and thirst, the said cattle-cars were given pretty much the the lowest priority on the railroads, often standing in place for days on end...

There are several interesting chapters showing how the daily life of the German population is affected by rationing, blackouts, and other similar inconveniences. The Nazis were determined not to repeat the mistake from the WW1, when rationing was neglected during the first years of the war, which led to hoarding, price gouging, etc. They introduced fairly strict rationing early in the WW2 (pp. 65, 87), but according to Stoddard it was not yet so strict as to produce malnourishment. It did, however, lead to a diet with too few fats and too much carbohydrates (pp. 88–9). In fact the German workers had been accustomed to a meagre diet for many years; their nutrition under the rationing system was not really worse than before the war; most of the complaints were coming from the upper and middle classes (pp. 89, 97).

Stoddard describes how rationing works on p. 28: “In the last analysis, each of these food-coupons is what the Germans call a Bezugschein—an official permit to purchase an article of a specific kind and quality. Let me illustrate: You want to buy some meat. Each of your meat coupons entitles you to so many grams. You may go into an inexpensive restaurant and get the cheapest grade of sausage or you can go into the best hotel and get a finely cooked filet mignon. The price will differ enormously, but the number of meat coupons you hand over is precisely the same.” However, it seems that in the countryside, rationing was not taken so seriously, at least not at the time when Stoddard was there (p. 114). Similar rationing schemes also applied to clothing (pp. 93–4).

Chapter 19 is also interesting, describing a short trip he took to Hungary. Although it was to some extent a German satellite, Hungary was still neutral at the time. Stoddard vividly describes how delightful it was to be able to escape rationing, blackouts, etc. for a few days after having to put up with these inconveniences for several months during his stay in Germany.

Of course many things in Nazi Germany were off-limits to journalists; or even if they could learn something about them, they wouldn't be allowed to write about them. See in particular ch. 22, ‘Closed Doors’. For example, they weren't allowed near the ‘West Wall’, i.e. the fortified area near the border with France (p. 281). Into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia it would in principle be possible to go, but a journalist would be continually under surveillance and thus it would be impossible for him to really come into contact with Czech patriots to learn about their views of the situation (pp. 46, 283). Occupied Poland was entirely off-limits to journalists. The most he was able to do was talk to a Red Cross official who had been in Warsaw and praised the German efforts to prevent the spread of disease in the wake of the war (pp. 185–6). This lack of direct information from Poland naturally gave rise to rumours: “Some of the rumors around Berlin were very lurid. One of the most persistent which went the journalistic rounds was that the Nazis were systematically killing off all troublesome Poles; that Gestapo and S.S. men went from village to village, rounding up those denounced by resident secret agents and machine-gunning them into a common grave which the victims had been previously forced to dig. I mention this, not to assert its credibility, but to present a picture of the urmor and gossip which are passed around when authentic news is unobtainable. The general impression among foreign journalists in Berlin was that rough work was going on in Poland. If that was an unjust inference, it's the Nazis' own fault for keeping out reliable neutral observers who could have written objective, unbiased accounts.” (Pp. 282–3. Although he's really bending over to give the Nazis the benefit of the doubt, we must admit that in hindsight these rumours seem substantially justified. The massacres of Polish intelligentsia, clergy, etc. are well known.)

On p. 108 he mentions the mandatory separation of different types of trash: paper, rags, bottles, old metal, broken furniture. I suppose that these different types of waste were then recycled in the appropriate way. It's a sad and sobering thought, this — that Nazi Germany 65 years ago had better recycling practices than we do nowadays.

Ch. 16 is about eugenics in Germany. This is perhaps one of the aspects where Stoddard's opinions seem the most unsavoury from the present-day point of view. He was, of course, a life-long supporter of eugenics, and no country at the time had more eugenic legislation than Nazi Germany. In this chapter, he rarely makes explicit statements in support of the Nazi policies, but the fact that he states everything so very neutrally and without the slightest hint of disapproval is telling enough by itself. “Inside Germany, the Jewish problem is regarded as a passing phenomenon, already settled in principle and soon to be settled in fact by the physical elimination of the Jews themselves from the Third Reich. It is the regeneration of the Germanic stock with which public opinion is most concerned and which it seeks to further in various ways.” (P. 189.) He mentions the Nuremberg laws prohibiting intermarriage between Jews and Germans on p. 190; at least he admits that this is “highly controversial racial doctrine”. He also mentions the compulsory sterilization for various hereditary conditions (p. 191), again without any hint of disapproval. He witnessed some proceedings at the German eugenic supreme court (pp. 192–6), and leaves the impression that the judges and doctors involved are making a serious effort to ascertain if the people concerned should come under the provisions of sterilization law or not (and prefer not to recommend sterilization in doubtful cases). But this picture is probably too rosy. In fact at the time of Stoddard's visit to Germany, the Nazis were already taking the first steps on the way from mere sterilization to euthanasia; the T-4 euthanasia programme was starting up, and its procedures were far from the careful court sessions described above. A certain Dr Schreck (yes, really) “took refereeing ‘euthanasia’ forms to new Stakhanovite heights, sometimes processing fifteen thousand forms a month, on occasion in a tavern over a glass or two of wine” (Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History, ‘Medicalized Mass Murder’, p. 386).

At the end of the chapter Stoddard quotes from German eugenic propaganda a bizarre set of “Ten Commandments for the Choice of a Mate”. What makes this even more bizarre is that, when these commandments address the reader with the familiar du, Stoddard's translation uses the English thou. I wonder if this is really appropriate. He seems to feel that the use of du in the original was “exhortatory” (p. 197) rather than merely a way of addressing the reader in an informal way. But in English, thou has such a strong religious baggage and sounds so pompous that I really can't think of it as a suitable translation of du.

There are some interesting observations on the German economy under the Nazis on pp. 272–5. It was not quite a planned economy but more like a “directed economy” (p. 275). Private business was allowed to exist and make a modest profit, but high profits were prevented by taxation and by tight price controls. Additionally, the government never hesitated to step in and regulate some part of the economy directly if this seemed necessary to achieve their goals. The Nazi agricultural policy is described in ch. 9; there seems to be a good deal of romanticism in it, what with its emphasis on yeoman-like small-scale farmers, unpretentious, in close touch with the soil (pp. 111, 121), with their old-worldly quasi-feudal relationship between the solid farmers and their poorer tenants or hired workers, with patriarchal benevolence on one side and boundless loyalty on the other (pp. 123–4), etc., etc. Subsequent chapters describe other major Nazi organizations: the Labor Front (their replacement for the trade unions; ch. 10), the National Labor Service (ch. 11), Hitler Youth (ch. 12), women's organizations (ch. 13), the Winter Help charity programme (ch. 14), and the Nazi party itself (ch. 20).

“Even more interesting are reports that some iron from French Lorraine finds its way to the Reich in exchange for German coke which the French iron mines need for effective operation. This contraband trade apparently runs through neutral Belgium and is winked at by both sides. Though the French Government has denied these reports, they are not improbable. Such exchanges occurred in the last war, and are an historical commonplace. Even across the hottest battle-lines, barter usually occurs when the mutual benefits are sufficiently apparent.” (P. 295.)

In a comment on the German people's attitude to the war, Stoddard notes the absence of histrionic enthusiasm that was so typical of the early months of the first world war: “To be sure, the average German seems ready to fight and die for what he believes to be his rightful place in the world. However, he doesn't sentimentalize over it. He's usually hard-boiled on the subject. It's just a dirty chore that, if needs be, must be done.” (P. 64.) This agrees with what I've read elsewhere (e.g. Ian Kershaw's Hubris, ch. 2, sec. V, p. 124, and ch. 5, sec. V, p. 221).

Another observation that agrees with what I've read elsewhere is this one from p. 50: “National Socialism is not merely a political and eocnomic upheaval but a social revolution as well. To a very large extent it has brought the lower middle class into power.” Indeed in the early years of the Nazi movement, the lower middle class was the only one where they had a non-negligible number of supporters.

Incidentally, Stoddard died in 1950. Therefore the copyrights of some of his works have already expired in some countries; unfortunately not in most of the European ones, where they will last at least until 2020 (and I don't doubt for a moment that by then copyright terms will be extended even further). Anyway, if you're one of the lucky people whose government still adheres to the ‘life + 50 years’ copyright terms of the Berne convention, you may read the free e-text of Into the Darkness at the Project Gutenberg of Australia web site.

ToRead:

  • Perhaps I'll eventually read some of Stoddard's earlier works of ‘scientific racism’, but they aren't very high on my priority list. After all, they have only curiosity value, and besides there's probably a considerable risk that they must be boring (depending on how strongly he was trying to appear scientific).
  • He mentions Nora Waln on p. 252. This is the first time I've heard of her. The titles of her books sound interesting: The House of Exile (1933, based on the ten or so years she lived in China); Reaching for the Stars (1939, about her experiences in Germany in 1934–1938; later editions were published under the title The Approaching Storm: One Woman's Story of Germany 1934–1938); and her first book, The Street of Precious Pearls (1921), which I've no idea what it's about.