Monday, 18 July 2016

The tumbrils, the tumbrils - The Revolution in the Revolution

Last Thursday was Bastille Day, le quatorze juillet, the anniversary of the storming by an angry crowd of the Bastille prison fortress in 1789, and one of the landmark dates of the Great Revolution.  I did not blog on that day, partly because in Nice a peaceful crowd watching a fireworks display was attacked by a man driving a truck, who scythed his way along the Promenade des Anglais, killing 84 people and injuring 200.  This assault has been 'claimed' by ISIS, though the exact character of the assailant, and his mental state, so far as they are ascertainable to us yet, suggest someone in great mental and psychological distress and disorder rather than a focused ideologue.  This has not stopped George Hook and other would-be armchair warriors in the defence of 'our values', and 'our civilization' abusing the platform of the media to declare that 'we' are fighting a 'war' against 'Islam', and, briefly tearing their eyes away from Victor comic and the collected speeches of Churchill, to mispronounce the names of the hapless President of the Republic and of the French national anthem, and to berate 'liberals' who cannot recognise the reality of struggle today.

The real Revolution, about which such fools know almost nothing beyond sentimental Dickensian clich├ęs, was much more interesting.  And indeed, it must be noted that by a sweet irony of history, the Bastille was by the time of its capture empty of all but seven of its prisoners.  Most notably, the Marquis de Sade had been removed from the prison only ten days earlier - a writer in whose work the Enlightenment is both exemplified and subverted (as Adorno and Horkheimer realised in their great critique of the instrumentalisation of reason).  That proximity of Sade should make us think carefully about the Revolution, and about the invocation of liberty, equality and fraternity now in reaction to attacks such as that at Nice.   The fact is that the Revolution is too great to contain in simplistic pseudo-historical maxims, and any unreflective mobilization of its legacies is the prerogative of dunces.

Nowhere is this more the case than in France itself, where interpretation of the Revolution has been a touchstone of intellectual and political life from Michelet to Furet.  The fact is that the modern historiographic orthodoxy in France about the 1789-1804 period has been anti-republican and counter-revolutionary since at least the 1970s.  But a few beacons still shine for the radical reading of the Revolution.

Of these, none has given me greater pleasure in recent years than Eric Hazan, the Parisian publisher, urbanist, Marxist and historian, whose Invention of Paris sits in my bag every time I visit the city.  This wonderful book, steeped in the political, literary, planning and architectural history of Paris, is written with a mix of steel, erudition and grace worthy of some of his heroes - Balzac, Baudelaire, Benjamin - and it is one of those books that makes me smile in public for the sheer delight of reading.  More recently, Hazan has published a popular history of the Revolution, and a short history of the barricade as an insurrectionary technique.   Here he is - appropriately on the Jacobin website - on the necessity of the Revolution.

Yes, the French Revolution Was Necessary

And here is Jonah Walters, giving a useful sketch of the Revolution through a series of questions:

A Guide to the French Revolution


Many of the greatest intellectuals and writers of Europe were moved by and admired the Revolution.  Not only Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hazlitt and  Paine, Tone and Drennan, but also Kant and Hegel.  Those who think of the latter only as the theoretical laureate of the Prussian state need to re-examine some of his earlier work, the Jena lectures of 1805-1806.  

Hegel on Bastille Day





Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Apotheosis of Moral Mediocrity - Elie Wiesel

Obituary pages in 'liberal' newspapers have recently been filled with sonorous tributes to Elie Wiesel, author of Night, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who died on July 2 last.  Wiesel, of Romanian-Jewish background, was once described by the LA Times as 'the most important Jew in America'.  He contributed to the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.   His Nobel citation in 1986 described him as a 'messenger to mankind', and noted his 'practical work in the cause of peace'.

Unfortunately, Wiesel's work in one of the fields closest to him was not particularly peaceful, or humane.  He disavowed the task of holding Israel to account for its crimes of war and occupation.  In fact he was a crucial figure in  placing the Holocaust as a central feature of American cultural-political life (as documented by Peter Novick), and in mobilising and instrumentalising the Holocaust legacy in the defence of Israel.  This was a task he continued to carry out right up to Israel's most recent murderous bombardment and re-invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2014.  

Wiesel's passing is not worth mourning.  He has been one of the great hypocrites of recent times.

Some reading of a somewhat more bracing kind than is to be found in the bland mainstream:

Sara Roy, a Jewish scholar and the child of Holocaust survivors, is one of the great experts on the history of the Gaza Strip

A Response to Elie Wiesel


Corey Robin, an American-Jewish political theorist and expert on the radical right: 

My Resistance to Elie Wiesel


David Shasha, a Brooklyn-based scholar of Sephardic history, on Wiesel and Primo Levi:

Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi: A study in contrasts


And Alex Cockburn's tremendous slash-and-burn critique of Wiesel, from 2006:

Truth and Fiction in Elie Wiesel’s “Night”




Saturday, 2 July 2016

Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietman - we've all been there: Michael Herr 1940 - 2016

When I was about 18, I was at boarding school  on Canada's Pacific coast.   It was a highly privileged experience - a small school of about 200 kids, located deep in the great Douglas Fir and redwood rainforests of southern Vancouver Island, on its own small bay, with its own dock, with views down to the Cascades, and with much if not most of the teaching staff living in situ also.  Students from around 60 countries attended.   Classes, held in common rooms or 'dayrooms', were tiny, often under 10 people.  'Freedom' was considerable, and felt real - you could take a tent and disappear off into the forest, or, if you were a driver or had a friend with a license, you could check out a college van and head off into Victoria or elsewhere.

Like all schools, like boarding schools elsewhere, this school was a tremendous laboratory for young people making themselves, and, shy kid though I was, I did this too.  I thought I wanted to be a climber, so I scrambled up cliffs, got stuck, got the shakes, and then tried again.  I suddenly realised that books were not just interesting to me, but were cool and that knowing about them could make the reader cool, too.  Perhaps.  I moved from reading Tolkien to reading Joseph Conrad.  I'd been given a recording of the farewell concert of The Band, just before I headed to this school, and listening to The Last Waltz, borrowing metal and prog rock and New York art-punk music from friends and roommates transformed my sense of music.   And I read Dispatches.

Dispatches has to be one of the great books about war.  Assembled by Michael Herr from his musings and discussion pieces for Esquire and Rolling Stone, it was published in 1977, nearly a decade after Herr had left Vietnam.  It offers no real narrative, it does not push a clear political message or position on American involvement in Indochina, but it gives an extraordinary sense of a particular experience of the American side of the war.  As much a piece of New Journalism (or even gonzo) as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dispatches has since soaked into so many realms of Anglophone popular and high culture as to be a kind of ur-text, Herr a Foucauldian 'founder of discursivity'.   Every Hollywood image of the cynical hack in the Third World, of the world-weary grunt, of the loopy nerdy staff officer or idiot political spokesman, surely owes a debt to Dispatches.   The fiction of Robert Stone and Don DeLillo might not have been possible without Herr's book.  And the language, too:  Dispatches is surely one of the great conduits of black American street-talk, or jive, into English-speaking culture generally.  The after-effects of Herr's book leach on into films - those of Oliver Stone, or Walter Hill, or Martin Scorsese, or Michael Mann, or Katherine Bigelow.   But few of them have the courage not to lapse back into the moralism or the feeble humanism of which they purport to be the excoriating critiques.  Herr does not make this mistake - he's as clear about the bliss of war as he is about the terror, and he reminds us that war goes on happening because enough people out there enjoy it and think it's useful. 

Herr never wrote such a fine book again.  What need, after such a masterpiece?   I read just yesterday, on the webpages of The Paris Review, that he has died at the age of 76.   Latterly, it seems, he was uncertain as to the value of the work he gave to the world, and became reclusive.  This makes me sad: this was a great writer, who makes a lot of our preening Booker- or Pulitzer- or Goncourt-winning literary egomaniacs nowadays look like fools and pygmies.  I know I'll be reading Dispatches long after I've forgotten about the Zadie Smiths and the Colm Toibins and the Michel Houellbecqs.

Here is the Paris Review obituary:

In Memoriam: Michael Herr, 1940–2016