Michael Ondaatje : Running in the Family
Coming from the larger scale of his later works, The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost, it’s a pleasure to go back to this smaller, more intimate memoir from 1981, an account of journeys made to Ondaatje’s ancestral Ceylon in 1979.
“Running in the Family” is written in short chapters interspersed with poems, the prose exact and rich, though not the “lush” and “luscious” and “magical” you will invariably find on the dust jackets from people like Maxime Hong Kingston. On the contrary, it’s a lean, greyhound prose which has been devised to tackle a subject matter which can only be rendered in many dimensions simultaneously. There is the quest for the father; the indigenous landscapes; the history of Celyon itself; the sprawling, ancient family; the subtle of races; and then there is the social gossip of the 40’s in an incestuous island society over which his forebears had some sway. The Singalese world of rumor, exaggeration, fantastical teasing and lore needs to be shown to us with an acrobatic comic style, in many voices, and with a dry wit that never grows slack. The brilliance of the book is its a humor that I have not always associated with Ondaatje.
Perhaps one needs this style to pursue the Moby Dick that is one’s father – or Ondaatje’s father anyway. He was the scion of a wealthy Sri Lankan family with deep roots in the island's history, part European art Tamil; he was also a preposterous, charming, mad alcoholic who was notorious for highjacking trains during the war while an officer in the Ceylon Light Infantry and running rampage through them with a pistol and hundreds of gin bottles ( gin was always the prefered mode of self-destruction for the British in the tropcis ) His mother – “lover of Tennyson and the early Yeats” – was always there to rescue him while he raved naked in railway tunnels, until she finally could bear it no longer and left.
Pursued by manias and hallucinations, the father in the book becomes a demonic figure. We see him holding five stray mastiffs by their throats on a lonely road, and later burying hundreds of the chicken eggs which he bred for a living in a pit behind the house, convinced they had been poisoned by conspirators out to destroy his family. We see him telling some guests that they are haloed by poisonous gas, and then charming his own children with a gentle sense of mischief. My favorite anecdote in this book is the story of his feud with a Singalese socialite conducted through the visitors’ comments books of government rest houses. Or the meanderings of his grandmother Lalla’s false tit, sometimes carried off by dogs and sometimes nudged around onto her back during waltzes.
The colonial wartime years seem as claustrophobicaly chummy and incestuous and intensified as they were in Kenya’s Happy Valley, and many other British outposts in the tropics that simultaneously corroded and brought to life the somewhat hapless and confused whites who over the centuries had ended up there as rulers, but who were soon to lose everything. The Ondaatje’s also lost everything, but the after-taste of their vanished world has found its literary preeminence in this supple and moving book.
Like any child who grew up in an Anglo-Irish household, and one strung between Catholic and Protestant - or rather, in Brendan Kennelly's acute phrase, between Protholic and Cathestant - I have always had to live with the treadmill of competing sentimental symbols. The exile has a gift for nostalgic kitsch, and among eziles the Irish are the virtuosos of ethnic schmaltz. Who else could have so maliciously burdened the world with "Irish Eyes", Saint Patrick's Day and misty-eyed reverence for a national shrub? Who else could have turned a history of colonial defeat into an iconography of plucky and spunky grit?
The Catholic side of my family was suffused with memories of the Motherland so dim, so inaccurate and so loaded with the machinery of invention that it was difficult to tell where actual misery ended and imagined magnificence began. A popular song, sung at Christmas around the piano, went like this:
The sea O the sea aghradh-gheal mo chroi
Long may it roll between England and me;
God help the poor Scotsmen, they'll never be free.
But we are surrounded by water!
Long, garrulous and drunken debates consisted in recounting, with interminable litanies of past British indecencies, the noble suffering and resistance of the gamey Paddies, whom only God, by inventing whiskey, had prevented from otherwise ruling the world.
That this same family had settled comfortably in a commuter-belt English town of fake Tudors, cattle auctions and Rotary Clubs, did not seem to perturb them one iota. The enemy was the enemy. Nor did it confound them that their "image-repertoire", to use the fashionable phrase, was of a dubious authenticity. Ireland for them, as Mayoites, was the West, the Gaeltacht - a fabled tract of the imagination thick with mists, supernatural trees and apple-checked peasants. The race sprang from this Land. The Land was a racial memory, clung to with delusionary fanaticism. What Bishop O'Dwyer once called "the sacred fire of nationality" seemed burn in every article of furniture.
This is why the Parade today sends chills down my spine. March 17th seems to me to be the perfect day to go to Cancun for 24 hours. The spectacle of those prancing kilted step-dancers, kelly-green plastic derbys and brawling fellow-Micks spilling out of all those Emerald Inns and Paddy Reilly's yelling slurred back-to-front refrains of "Danny Boy", and the usual counter-demonstrations of the ritually excluded gays and lesbians protesting its “homophobia” is enough to turn my blood to ice. Over the whole affair hangs the ghost of ethnic mysticisms past and present, and the shade of a thousand ax-grinding ancestors.
For while the Irish in New York may paint their faces green on Saint Patrick's Day like demented Celtic wood sprites as they roil their way from MacQuigan's to Milano's, their mythologies are in fact anything but simply Irish. They are as likely to be the fruit of British imperial myth-mongering and anti-industrial European Romanticism as of any Gaelic atavism. The symbols are even more impure than the race. The "Ireland" that is being celebrated has largely disappeared, and in reality barely existed in the first place. Like the Parade itself, it was invented in the nineteenth century, and all too easily reveals its dubious foundations. No gays in our march, thank you.
Recently, Irish academics have weighed in anew on this delicate and testy subject, from Thomas Cahill's charmingly boastful How the Irish Saved Civilization, to Declan Kibern's more sober and politicized Inventing Ireland and, simultaneously, there has been an explosion of cannily marketed Celto-nostalgia in the United States. Frank McCourt and James Caroll have cashed in on the commercial memoir gravy train with their accounts of miserable Irish childhoods, Riverdance sells sexualized stepdance which pundits claims reveals a newly liberated hibernian sexuality freed from the constraints of a thousand years of Catholicism ( “the pounding and joyful cadence of hard-soled shoes,” as the Times coyly put it ) and just as the Hostess snack company dyes its “snowball” dessert cakes green for the fateful day, Governor Pataki signs legislation which makes the Famine of Black ‘47 obligatory history in all New York schools. Irishness has entered the American ethnic mall along with many others, and with the usual commercial chutzpah. A Seamus Egan soundtrack courtesy of the Shanachie Entertainment Corporation, a cacophony of IRA movies ( minus the bomb-singed eight year old children, of course ) and a rash of Irish Village bars complete with hob-nailed boots, “peat fires” and heirloom chairs. The “Irish lovefest” is upon us.
Certainly, my matriarch, Mary O'Kane of Clare Island, Mayo, had no doubt that the Irish had saved civilization, though had you suggested that they had "invented" themselves from a strange assortment of literary texts over the last two hundred years or so, topped off now with a media blitz of stunning sentimentality, instead of drawing upon the inexhaustible well-spring of Celtic Truth, an apoplectic reaction would have ensued, probably followed by a blood clot.
Her rooms were a temple to Celtic Truth, defiant, lush and softly militant. Above her bed there hung a lithograph entitled The Bard, showing a Moses-like Irish poet of the age of Cuchulain strumming upon a gigantic Irish harp - the very one you see on a glass of Guinness - on the edge of a storm-tossed ravine frothing with native shrubs. With his huge, muscle-knotted arms, flowing white beard and prophetic scowl - the arms necessary, one supposes, for the deft wielding of that ten-foot seventy- pound harp - The Bard glowered down on Mary O'Kane's sleep, in which, she said, she dreamt every night of Inishboffen and Clare islands and their sprightly goats, Lough Derg ( a famous pilgramage site in Donegal ) and its sacred stones, the cromlechs and raths, the time-worn crosses and dreamscenes, as Joyce put it, "as wonderfully beautiful as...as when the Sligo illuminators gave free reign to their artistic fantasy long long ago in the time of the Barmecides."
In this timeless landscape of windswept heroes, of Kathleen Ni Houlihans, Ossians and our own ancestral 16th century pirate Kathleen O'Mally - ovaried buccaneer and terror of the English - the incunabula of folk myth is overlaid with memories of wretched realities : mass evictions, indifferent overlords of the Ascendency, the Land War - exactly that embittered Mayo immortalized by Synge in Playboy of the Western World. My grand-parents migrated out of that internal Third World and, looking back from the comparative safety of their new British destinations, heaved a sigh of relief, a relief obviously loaded with shame and intense nostalgia, and then set about re-working the reality to make it more in accord with the latent, "spiritual" greatness of the Race.
The Irish as a whole have made this into a psychological, not to say literary industry, with wish fulfillment, inferiority complex and bitterness toxically meshed.
At a Saint Patrick's Day speech in 1853, Archbishop John Hughes of New York made the following remark:
“But the very misfortunes of a temporal kind that have fallen on Ireland have sent forth the children of that unhappy land to every clime and every latitude, and wherever they are found...not only do they cherish fond memory for the apostle of their native land, but they propagate it, and make the infection as if it were contagious...”
And as they soared further and further away from the source of their complexes, so their need increased to invest it with a kind of heraldic weight, a tradition which did not in fact exist. My great-aunt would ritually summon us to her room to inspect the family's "coats of arms." These were a set of china saucers with heraldic shields inside their rims, a yule, a red boar and an emerald shrub. Where did the boar come from? And the lone yule? Who had given it to them? Who knows, perhaps her father found the saucers in a pawn shop in Newcastle and embarked on a little self-invention. The lives and above all histories of migrants are rarely without blurred lines and copious twilight zones.
In their different ways, Cahill and Kiberd indulge in a national pride of a related order. For what the suffering individual or family in exile must have constructed for itself as a worthy uniqueness, a form of subversive superiority in the face of obvious historical inferiority ( not imagined but all too real, the inferiority of the suppressed ) the wider culture sustains too, despite political or ideological differences. Hence Cahill merrily tells us that we all owe Ireland an incalculable debt, for without her we would be barbarians - the later defeats suffered by the land of monastic scholars and brilliant Latinists being just an ironic inversion of the older truth, namely that of the Gaels holding aloft the torch of Civilization during the Dark Ages. That he has to downplay a puny hamlet called Constantinople or a backwater like Muslim-Jewish-Christian Spain as repositories of this same Western Civilization is no matter. The important thing is to make the peripheral central and the reputedly "backward" a progressive agency of civilization.
Similarly, though in a markedly different spirit, Kiberd, with his rather pious leftist moralisms, has to assure us that Ireland is an impeccable Third World colony, staged an impeccable protoype Third World revolution-cum-liberation struggle and is now actually more enlightened, in some ways, that its former colonial master, Britain. How so? Because it has negociated forms of modern citizenship via a written constitution which the colonially-impoverished Brits, malnourished by an as yet unwritten constitution haven't gotten around to yet. What these modes of political enlightenment are exactly - in a country where for decades thousands of women have had to cross the Irish Sea simply to get an abortion - we are deftly not told, just as we are not provided with a meditation on the interesting fact that Zaire, Communist China, South Africa and Albania had and have had "written constitutions." Some of them, like that of Ireland, written in English.
Kiberd, in fact, romanticizes Ireland in a different way. There are no leprechauns or aislings or swooning bards in his romanticism, but there are plenty of "liberationist" heroes, fragile Third World solidarities and a notion of Irish consciousness as inherently modernist by virtue of its pioneering confrontation with Imperialism. Ireland, he contends, has more in common with Kenya and Algeria than with France or Germany. To be Irish is to be iconoclastic relative to "imperial Europe". The Irish can claim to be "the niggers of Europe", in Roddy Doyle's phrase, and reap a certain politically correct credibility thereby.
What, then, is the relation between Ireland and Imperialism, which Liberd claims is at the root of "inventing Ireland"?
The great trauma of Ireland, he suggests, was its loss of Gaelic. Especially in his wonderful chapter on Oscar Wilde, Kiberd recognizes the subtle ambiguities of the Anglo-Irish symbiosis, just as he understands that the reclaiming of a subdued identity, whatever that is, is dependent upon a reaching-out to the alien. But his meditation on the profound and unconscious allegiances of language itself is not sufficiently free from the grinding gears of his political world-views, which demand proud autochthonous cultures unmutilated by colonial humiliations. Ireland lost Gaelic, and so it was thrust into a neurotic and demeaning struggle with English. He reads his Irish authors through the lens of this displacement, imagining them as symtoms of the"decolonizing mind."
But history, in some respects, evades his simple indignations. All cultures are humiliated. contaminated, marginalized, eclecticized and remoulded at some point in their history. For three hundred years the English themselves, conquered by the Latinized and Frenchspeaking Normans, were forced to speak a language other than their own, a language which turned theirs inside out. This cataclysmic event, however, is rarely used to explain the "British mind." The English were surely traumatized by their colonial subjugation, but they were hardly obliterated or impoverished by it. It gave them access to a different civilization, whose technology, law, and intellectual life they integrated into their own. Two centuries were enough to effect that exuberant and fruitful melt-down. Do we read medieval English literature as it emerged away from French as an example of a "decolonization" comparable to that of post-colonial Nigeria?
As for Kiberd's parallels between Ireland's post-colonial literature and that of Africa? The only thing they have in common is that without Bnglish they would not exist. Nguge, Achebe and Soyinka are writers of English, not of African languages, just as Oscar Wilde, Synge and Beckett could not write a line of Gaelic. Imperialism called them into being, made them possible and continues to assure their existence.
Irish nationalism appeared as a force in the late nineteenth century, at exactly the moment that Gaelic began to seriously die away. It is an ideology of the English language, just as Irish culture is mostly a culture of the English language. Consider this passage by the Irish journalist Hubert Butler, from The Bell inl941:
"It is a strange time to maintain the theory that a distinctive culture cannot exist without cultural intercourse, but since the mainspring of our freedom was not political theory but the claim that Ireland possessed and could develop a unique culture of her own, it is seasonable to examine this claim. It need not take us long, not longer than a walk down O"Connell Street past the bookshops, the cinemas, the stationers, the theatres, the hotels. By the time we are in Parnell Square we can have no doubt that after twenty years of effort, the culture of Ireland is overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon, nakedly or in word-for-word translation. The machinery of the national culture is of the approved ( international ) model, but the wheels have never once gone round."
Today, cruelly enough, we are not much interested in the particularism of the ancient Thracians, Lydians or Madedonians as enthnologically unique peoples, even if we should be. A terrible law of spiritual economy comes into play: we are interested in the fact that they operated in Greek. If they had done so in Thracian, Lydian or Macedonian languages to the exclusion of Greek, they would have disappeared for us. The imperial language does not demean or impoverish them, let alone condemn them to perpetual marginality ( for in a language there are no margins, all is center ); it thrusts them, ambiguously but brilliantly, onto the world stage.
Speaking the language of Athens hardly made Alexander the militaristic barbarian or Aristotle the provincial Thracian a mutilated buffoon, any more than speaking English made Joyce a traumatized "nigger". The construal of either as protoypes of Third World iconoclasm and oppression, as traumatized subjectivities grappling with the ripple effects of cultural imperialism, is a deft romanticism.
And as far as the Irish in particular are concerned, it skips over the delicately tricky but rather obvious fact that they are not, when all is said and done, black. If they were, their history in America, as elswhere, would have been different from what it has actually been. (During the 1996 Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in Chicago’s South Side the black Morgan Park high school band, a part of the parade, was pelted with chicken bones, beer cans and hot dogs, apparently in a spontaneous expression of racial solidarity ). Whatever nationalists say, there is no racial dynamic between Irish and British, for to all intents and purposes they are the same race, indistinguishable from each other. For the Irish to see themselves as Europe's "riggers" today is an unadulterated gesture of politicized narcissim, a narcissim as fanciful, as self-deluding and as kitsch as to see themselves as a race of saints, bards and druids. In both cases, a fashionable and dubious primitivism authenticates the racial soul.
Some time during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett happened to notice a leprechaun sitting nonchalantly in the New Square of TrinitY College, Dublin. This sighting, while it may seem remarkable to an American, and would probably be unlikely in Harvard Yard, is not unrepresentative of the magical propensities of the Emerald Isle. Nothing could be more normal than to see "little people", as my family would frequently attest : it was not even rare for my uncles and aunts to point mischievously through the French windows into the suburban lawn and wink, seeing the child teeter on the edge of their own gullibility and will-to-magic. Finally, giving in to the collective psychosis I would indeed see the little green man sitting on the willow tree in a dapper Robin Hood hat and emerald hose, waving at me with a pair of tiny gardening shears in one hand. They seem to follow us around, the little people, trailing us like racial holograms with a life of their own. In fact, I sometimes see them in Tomkins Square Park, in the same Robin Hood hats and bright green pointed buskins - for leprechauns always wear the dandy attire of the year 1450.
Naturally, folk imagery has more to it than little green imps. It is part of a catalogue of emotively glamourized places, names and times. In an essay called The Sense of Place, Seamus Heaney begins with this observation:
"I think there are two ways in which place is known and cherished, two ways which may be complementary but which are just as likely to be antipathetic. One is lived, illiterate and unconscious, the other learned, literate and conscious. In the literary sensibility, both are likely to co-exist in a conscious and unconscious tension."
He goes on to note that there is in Irish poetry a whole genre known as dinnseanchas that is, poems and tales "which relate the original meanings of place names and constitute a form of mythological etymology." With the loss of Gaelic, this sense of etymological place has been lost; and indeed, as far as his first way of knowing place is concerned, one could amend it to saying that there is a way which is unlived, illiterate and unconscious.
"We have to retrieve the underlay of Gaelic legend," Heaney goes on, "in order to read the full meaning of the name and to flesh out the topographical record with its human accretions." But of course, this does not happen very much even in a language which dwelled in a place for thousands of years. The "underlay" is simply forgotten, becomes invisible through the inevitable disconnections of passing time. What happens instead is that the illiterate and unconscious attacthment to names and places becomes an emotion of the primitive, an ersatz emotion depending on submerged echoes crisscrossing chaotically in the language. An "etymological mythology" in the worst sense.
An Englishman hears the word "Christchurch" and feels a complex of national sentiments - Thomas Hardy? Oxford-Wessex? Ivied and crocketed towers? Golden medieval stone?An Irishman hears "Glen Inagh" or "Fingal's Cave" and feels something equally unsure. The echo which reverberates through them no longer has anything to do with the organic connection of word to place, or of word to race, or of word to event. It is a chain-reaction of synthetic images, uncontrollable in its potent sentimentalism.
Here is Joyce on the Irish litany of key-words:
"...the lovely lakes of Killarney, the ruins of Clonmacnois, Cong
Abbey, Glen Inagh and the Twelve Pins, Ireland's Eye, the Green Hills of Tallaght, Croaght Patrick, the brewey of Messrs. Arthur Guiness, Son and Company ( Limited ), Lough Neagh's banks, the vale of Ovoca, Isolde's tower, the Mapas obelisk, Sir Patrick Dun's hospital, Cape Clear, the glen of Aherlow, Lynch's Castle, the Scotch house, Rathdown Union Workhouse at Loughlinstown, Tullamore jail, Castleconnel rapids, Killballymacshonakill, the cross at Monasterboice, Jury's Hotel, S. Patrick's Purgatory, the Salmon Leap, Maynooth college refectory, Curley's hole, the three birthplaces of the first Duke of Wellington, the rock of Cashel, the bog of Allen, the Henry Street warehouse, Fingal's Cave - all these moving scenes are still there for us today rendered more beautiful still by the waters of sorrow which have passed over them and by the rich incrustations of time."
Joyce's catalogue is not only a parody of the literature of national tourist offices to come, it is the hideous X-ray of a national soul abbreviated in two dozen listless and "incrusted" topographic names - an X-ray that could performed on any country's consciousness, in so far as that consciousness lies embedded at the level of the unlived, the illiterate and the unconscious. But Joyce's venom arises because in Ireland, a generation of revivalist intellectuals had given the excercise a measure of patriotic credibility. Here is Yeats, in his preface to Augusta Gregory's translation of the Gaelic Cuchulain of llluirtheme.
“We Irish should keep these personages much in our hearts, for they lived in the places where we ride and go marketing, and sometimes they have met one another on the hills that cast their shadows upon our doors at evening. If we will but tell these stories to our children the Land will begin again to be a Holy Land, as it was before men gave their hearts to Greece and Rome and Judea. When I was a child I had only to climb the hill behind the house to see long, blue, ragged hills flowing along the southern horizon. What beauty was lost to me, what depth of emotion is still perhaps lacking in me, because nobody told me, not even the merchant captains who knew everything, that Cruachan of the Enchantments lay behind those long, blue, ragged hills.”
Sympathy for this Celtic Twilight longing could be sustained by those, like Kiberd, who tend to think that creating a national consciousness has its forgivable moments of weakness. But, on the other hand, it is difficult of think of, say, Rilke or Gombrowicz - men from nations easily as tragic and marginal as Ireland - carrying on about the sacred legends of the stones of Prague or the mystical lore of the Polish hinterland. ( Rilke loathed Prague and said so: he had his own reasons to hate what he called "that fish." ) When Sean O'Faolain talks of "a blazing love of place and a fond memory for the lost generations of the tribe," he is cooing the language of ethnic nostalgia. There is nothing especially "modernist" about the Irish revivalist movement, or the national movement either, for that matter. Both, indeed, were provincial and reactionary.
To say, as Kiberd does, that Beckett and Joyce are modernists because they are Irish, and not because they became Europeans is delusional. "The Celts," declaims Kiberd, "are the leaders in art," pointing to the somewhat traditional form of European masters like Gide and Lawrence; but Proust and Rolland and the Surrealists and Jarry and Musil were hardly "traditional" compared to Yeats, Synge or Wilde. Ireland produced no avant-garde music or painting comparable to that of France or Germany or Russia. And Joyce and Beckett themselves were nitrically scornful of most Irish art. To link decolonization with brilliant modernist iconoclasm is a precarious manoeuvre, at best. One need only think of Proust in his cork-lined study, anally studying his investment portfolios.
The Celtic Revival, in fact, which was the scaffold upon which the "invented" Ireland rested, was always a profoundly divided affair, and rarely a very indigenous one. Its roots, as it happened, were not even in Ireland at all. The movement began in London in the 1750s, and was a clear offshoot of European Romanticism. All of its essential traits derive from the latter, not from immemorial Celtic forms.
Between around 1760 and 1800, there was a veritable explosion of Celtic scholarship centered on antiquarian societies in the British capital. The first of these was the Cymmrodorian Society, founded in 1751 under the patronage of the Prince of Wales. Within two decades, Celticism had exploded on the British literary scene, and was hailed as the ressurrection of a largely extinct tradition. It is often claimed by Mar~ists that Imperialism simply manufactured images of anne~ed cultures for its own nefarious purposes; in reality, the motives and outcomes are much more complex. The search for an indigenous mythology and the abandoning of the Classical one had other roots. And the search for the image of a timeless, agrarian and spiritual society was created not by a need to proove the Celts to be child-like and simple, but by a need to rebel against the nascent industrial age. This is classic Romantic iconoclasm, not Imperial conniving.
Kiberd, for one, portrays a supposedly similar case in India, describing British officials like Warren Hastings as Imperial thugs with no interest in the true native culture but a rapacious one. Nothing could be more inaccurately cliched, dependent as it is on the biased testimony of Edmund Burke. It was Hastings who revived the almost defunct pedagogy of Hinduism, which centuries of Muslim vandalism had practically destroyed; and who founded the first modern Vedic schools. Similarly with Ireland.
By 1838, Algernon Hubert could entitle a pamphlet Essay on the Neo-Druidic Heresy in Britannia, and the mountain of serious scholarship on Celtic antiquity amassed in the eighteenth century was the basis of everything to follow, both callow and enlightened. Celtomaniacs and neo-Druids sprouted like mushrooms in the British back yard. Celtic poets like Lewis Morris and Evan Evans set in motion a Celticizing craze. From Mason's Caractacus to MacPherson's Ossian, a Celtic iconography was created and then popularized. A vast amount of buried Welsh literature was recovered, translated and printed, and the Scots and Irish followed. A play like Llwyd's Beaumaris Bay is so thick with annotations that it is almost a scholarly index in its own right.
It is also worth noting that it was Protestants who led the revival of Gaelic learning in Ireland. Most of the philological, archaeological and antiquarian research which ressurrected that culture came via the Royal Irish Academy, and its largely Prostesant scholars.
The Irish Prostestants, however, because of their roots in the Ascendancy, or British rule, lived in something of a twilight world. The historian Michael Sheehy sees their culture, strongest in the eighteenth century, as "elitist, unhistoric, cosmopolitan and synthetic in composition." However, their writers, from Samuel Ferguson and Christina Brooke, to Standish O'Grady and Petrie, were the founders of the romantic Celtic Irish of current lore. From them we derive our heroic, spiritual Gaelic peasantry, our "unique elemental vision" and our romanticization of Druids, Gael aristocrat war-lords and our sundry contributions to Civilization with a capital C.
That all this was built on a moribund native culture by an elite whose ultimate allegiance lay elsewhere is typically ambiguous. Their heir was Yeats, a man caught precariously between the same contradictions: an anglicized Protestant in London espousing ancient
Gaelic wisdom and dreaming of Innisfree and its wattle huts...in English, of course.
In the nineteenth century, however, everything changed. A Catholic, nativist nationalism rooted in the real peasantry arrived. And with the mass rural demonstrations of O'Connell, the foundation of the radical Land League in the 1880s and the militant Gaelic League, the Irish Revival split down the middle into two warring halves. Against the cosmopolitan, romantic Protestant elite, a xenophobic, ethnocentric and Catholic grass-roots movement rose up. Its apostles were men like Daniel Corkery and Pedraig Pearse, and its organ was the National Literary Society.
Like the narodniks in Russia and the followers of Tikal in India, the Gaelic nationalists appealed to a submerged peasantry. Whereas the Protestant Anglo-Irish Celticists had believed that the order of things could be toppled by artist-saints tapping into folk magic, the Catholic militants preached revolution, fierce regionalism and the revival of Gaelic. The Abbey Theatre, Yeats and Lady Gregory's faeries stood across from the Gaeltacht, racially pure Gaelic athletes and Sinn Fein.
The question was which of these two versions of Ireland was more based on naked deception, bigotry and national mysticism. Or rather, how one unconsciously, or consciously, formed the other. ( Many Protestants formed the early Caelic League, and the Protestant Douglas Hyde chaired the National Literary Society until 1915. )
Polycentric, European and middle-class, the Protestant vision was doomed to subside in the early Catholic Free State. But the irony now is that the Ireland envisioned by the Gaelic League is as dead as the proverbial doornail. And instead of the misted isle we see in music videos in New York bars like the recently opened Gaelic Village at Thady Con’s on Second Avenue, with its rolling - yes, emerald - hills, its authentically ethereal, harp-strumming maiden-minstrels and becapped green-eyed peasants propelling their nags through sun-dappled country lanes with a gay tap o’ the marnin to youse and a canny bar or two of "Kate of Gornavilla," we have a fairly impoverished but mildly successful third-tier member of the EEC doing a brisk business in dairy products, pop bands and smugly irrelevant non-alignement.
Perhaps the reason for this is that so much of the lore of Irish mythology was, in' fact, British and European to begin with. The two nationalisms simply invented themselves out of nothing.
But then, there was nothing much to be gained in renouncing the nineteenth and twentieth centuries' favourite past-time, that of ethnic mysticism, and joining the Cosmopolis. That would be simply to admit a fait accompli. That Ireland had become, and is, a province of the empire of English.
The Celticism of the mid-century was exactly contemporaneous with an almost identical movement within British culture itself. As Martin Wiener has shown, British culture developed an antiindustrial romantic ideology very early on, creating in the midst of the world's first industrial revolution a nostalgic vision of an earlier England, a wholesome, sootless land of sturdy yeomen, happy frocked swains and frolicking milkmaids. With time' this vision came to dominate nineteenth and even twentieth century British visions of England.
The Celticist vision of Ireland in the work of a Daniel Corkery or a Yeats was not so different from the Olde Engelonde vision of Britain in the work of a William Cobbett or a Robert Blatchford, whose influential socialist tract Merrie England published in 1894, was a powerful influence on certain Irish critics, including Corkery himself.
Blatchford claimed that industrialism was a false turn, and that the true soul of ancient, authentic England lay in timeless rural values. The racial soul was rooted in unchanging land,not shifting, heteroclite cities. The ultimate hero was the national peasant ( largely, of course, unknown ); the devil, homo economicus with his factories, his greed and his rootless capital. As William Morris said, "I should be glad if we could do without coal."
The similarity of British and Irish images of their own pasts is striking. In 1904, the British critic C.F.G. Masterman published a symposium known as England. A Nation, subtitled The Papers of the Patriots' Club in which eminent writers from Chesterton to Ensor sounded forth on the immemorial English Soul. And on a land which was, in Wiener's phrase, "ancient, domestic and rural." Mastermann, like E.M.Forster, focused himself anxiously and protectively upon "the well-being of England and the English people; a pride in its ancient history, its ancient traditions, the very language of its grey skies and rocky shores." Here is one of the contributers, George Bartram, giving a taste of the results:
Stay thou green England, fill thy loins with store
Of peasant manhood, sow thou plenteous seed
Of such grim velour as was thin of yore
Be thy strong philtres aye and emermore
The broad green woodland and the wind- swept mead!
This queer and neurotic language has a perfect counterpart in Irish revivalist and Celticist writing of the same period. Consider the moderately more rational Lady Gregory, in her Ideas of Good and Evil from The Celtic Element in Literature published in the same year:
“Men lived in a world where anything might flow and change, and become any other thing; and among great gods whose passions were in the flaming sunset, and in the thunder and the thunder- shower, had not our thoughts of weight and measure.They worshipped nature and the abundance of nature, and had always, as it seems, for a supreme ritual that tumultuous dance among the hills or in the depths of the wood, where unearthly ecstasy fell upon the dancers. “
And Yeats, in the Preface already refered to, who refers longingly to "a communion of heroes, a cloud of stalwart witnesses." Back-to- the-land Irish writers like Padraic Colum, Liam O'Plaherty and Sean O'Faolain all claimed to speak on behalf of a Celtic tradition that disdained industrialism and urban life. And Corkery, that fiery apostle of Irish authenticity, located it in the Land, just as his English counterparts did:
“...no landowners in any other country ever knew their territories as these Caels knew theirs since, in the literature, land and literature were almost indivisible. Every bluff and brake they looked on they were aware was known at the other end of the country because it had at some time or other been enshrined in verse or a heoic tale.”
More poetically, we have the character of Nora in Paul Vincent Carroll's The White Steed, defining Ireland thusly.
“There is something here that is nowhere else. It's away far back and away deep down. A man going down a moonlit road from a fair may know it, or a child reading on a broken sill of Niam or Aideen or Maeve. but they will tell you no name for it. They will look away from you and the tears will come with a sudden rush but the cry is within them forever, and neither money nor mating will make them happy.”
Sometimes, the Modern World was conceived as being synonymous with America. Hence Seamus Ridge, in his Conamara Man, a stirring tale of delicious local flavours:
“I do often wonder why I came here. Ach mucha ( oh dear ), but there is a world of difference between this big city and Muighinis the island in Conamara where I was born and where the material wants so necessary to the New Yorker are lacking, but where the fresh air, freedom of the sea, and enjoyment of life is as God meant it to be. Old Paudeen used to say "Look at that stingy thin and wrinkled face of the returned Yank and learn a lesson from it.”
This linking of Land to national soul was not only not unique to the Irish, it was in fact a pervasive agent in all nationalistic thought in every European country. Far from being a bold innovator in such matters, Ireland was following a European political movement which had its roots in German Romanticism, and in particular in Herder. It was Herder who first declared the mystic notion of the Volk, or Race, to be the driving force of History. It was Herder, calling upon the "little Germans" to rally against the French imperialists under Napoleon, who first claimed the "soul" of the nation to be its only source of authenticity. And who told the Germans to look into their archaic past to find their distinctive present and to defy the cosmopolitan, imperialist French. Distinctive, of course, being the unpleasantly operative word. It is Herder, too, who underwrites most post-colonial Third World nationalism.
The prime exponent of such thinking in Ireland - on a creditably intelligent level - was Corkery . His "Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature" ( 1931 ) has become somewhat notorious as a kind of pamphlet for Irish cultural nationalism, and his earlier books, "A Munster Twilight" ( 1916 ) and "The Threshold of Quiet" ( 1917 ), set out to describe Herder's mystic Volk in their Irish guise.
Like countless German propagandists of the same time, Corkery complains that the current mentality of his homeland is "not national, not normal, not natural." By this he means that folk there speak English and not Caelic. And what does he mean by "normal" and "natural" if not "faithful to ancient racial traits"? He talks endlessly of "other nations", as if those other nations, simply by virtue of being non-Irish, had something universal in common with each other.
Corkery champions the writers of the Irish Land, Seamus O'Kelly, Padraic Colum, T.C. Murray and Darell Figgis, contrasting them with the crowd of rootless ex-pats who have lost their "normalness " - the miserably impoverished and diminished James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. This is like German nationalists declaring Thomas Mann to be "abnormal" because he refuses to paint pictures of Bavarian villages and lederhosen-clad swineherds. Finally, Corkery declares that "normal and national are synonymous in literary criticism", a statement that is surely true only in the worst possible scenarios. It does not occur to him that the displacement of Irish writers from their homeland is their greatest advantage. Not belonging is a more critical state of being than the passive state of belonging.
Corkery's fiction, too, is rich in contrived ethnic-rustic colour. In "A Munster Twilight" we find a landscape of gloomy Kerry glens, "oldtime" Gaelic families, and "out-of-the-world cooms" inhabited by ancient fossil-like life-forms like Old Diarmuid in the story Kanity and his son Michael, who spends his day "chopping furze as food to give to their poor sorry nag." Diarmuid harangues his son with tirades like this:
“Don't be hard, Michael, boy, there's a good time coming; you won't have to face what I had to face, the struggling with landlords, and the law - the law, that would leave a rich man poor and a poor man broken.”
Shoemakers, a Blind Man, one Maggie Maw, farmers, gossips, all speak their dialect with many a "'Twould that", a "'Tis this," and a "'tis something else" to keep the flavour of the "old-time ebb-andflow" alive, while the themes of Land, Nationality and Religion thrum loud and clear throughout. Corkery himself, the disciple of Ruskin, declared of these stories, "I had come upon a reality. I had discovered where my own roots could find comfort...( in ) a sense of the past."
Corkery championed Gaelic intensely, but saw his hopes for it dashed utterly. The Irish, mysteriously, just did not seem to want to speak it. He came to see all Irish literature written in English, including his own, as an abortion, a judgement that no-one would second relative to the brilliant and roving Euro-Irishmen. In the end, Corkery's phrase "The Hidden lreland", his 1924 book on the poetry of Gaelic Munster, has become the name of an association of Irish tourist hotels modeled on country houses, The Hidden Ireland Ltd. That "Ltd.", of course, tells us everything we need to know about the gap between nationalist fantasy and national reality.
Later, this racial Romanticism could also be seen as a violent response to the crisis of industrialism as it destroyed immemorial ways of life. Certainly, German fascist propaganda, clearly rooted in Herder, sounds exactly the same notes as its Irish nationalist counterpart. As Sheehy notes of Irish nationalism: "the old paganism was adapted to national socialism." - a perfect description of Nazi mythology. Rural truth and beauty, peasant manhood, mystical exaltation...the motifs are the same. And the enemies are always cosmopolitans of one kind or another: Americans - always shrivelled "stingy Yanks" - Jews or Brits, foreigners, capitalists, imperialists and industrialists. And underlying both was a sense of racial ancientness, of ancestral uniqueness.
The chauvinism of what came to be known as "Celtomania" was succinctly described by the Celtic scholar Salomon Reinach, in an article in the Revue Celtique for 1898:
La Celtomanie est une doctrine qui peut se resumer ainsi: "Les Celtes vent les plus ancien peuple de la terre; leur langue, mere des autres langues, s'est conservee presque intact dans le bas- breton; ils etaient des profondes philosophes...
( Celtomania is a doctrine which can be resumed as follows: "The Celts are the oldest people on earth; their language, mother of all other languages, is conserved almost intact in Low-Breton; they were profound philosophers...)
Certainly, the images of the invented Ireland bear the mark of a crisis, but it is not just the crisis of a people freeing itself from a colonial yoke. At the end of the nineteenth century, cultural nationalist movements all over Europe crystallized around symbols of fading cultures. For the Irish, of course, it was the Gaelic culture, which was largely already defunct. What happened was that new secular elites manipulated these symbols as they struggled with traditional religious leaders for command of their communities. It is this manipulation of symbols that we are dealing with, as the historian John Hutchins has pointed out, and not any true manifestation of ethnic renewal in the modern world.
Ireland, like Germany, or her colonial "sister" India, and for that matter like England herself, had an intellectual elite with a vested interest in the promulgation of an Arcadian Golden Age. In India, for ezample, the British-trained Indian elite ressurrected the fabled Ramraj or Hindu Golden Age, which became a potent factor in Indian nationalism ( it litters the thought of Ghandi ).
But the Ramraj like the Golden Age of Gaeldom, was an invention - an invention powered for the most pert by British-sponsored scholarship. The actual natures of the historical societies were far too inconvenient to be actually taken into consideration. Nationalism arose, therefore, from what Sheehy has called "an inept and sentimental concept of culture", a purely symbolic rehashing of murky and little understood history. Hating the English, worshipping the peasantry, idolizing the nation's unique qualities, painting the face green and telling ourselves that God invented whiskey to prevent the Irish from ruling the world were, and are, part and parcel of that sentimental ineptitude. An ineptitude tinged, as it is in all cultures, with a hint of confabulating menace.
Perhaps all of this explains why, when it comes to that fatal day in March when the Irish in New York paint their faces green, and reenact their nationalist-pagan-Catholic myths, all neatly inherited lock stock and barrel from the great nineteenth century, my first impulse is to find a steel-reinforced bunker twenty feet beneath the earth and lie there immobile, waiting for the ticker-tape and emerald gee-gaws to be cleared away, the brogue to recede, the pipes and fifes to die away and normal, homogenized Americans to re-emerge from the banal tribal orgy of face-paint, tartars and plastic shamrocks. My great-aunt, who had little idea what a "Saint Patrick's Day Parade" is, was or could have been, would have been astonished at that anachronistic and alien spectacle. No doubt she would have muttered something darkly about "American showbiz." She would probably have been able to guess that it was invented as a kind of ethnic mass spectacle in the 1860s, designed to make the Irish feel good about themselves. A kind of early Million Man March. The nationalist newspaper editor Patrick Ford once opined that "On this one day in the year an Irishman is a MAN."
He then asked, anticipating, of course, a rhetorical "nay", "Is Saint Patrick's Day only a day-dream?" Of course, that it exactly what it is - and if only it were.
We know her firstly from a thousand and one photographs, each one posed with the care of scenes on a vase : Colette the frizzy-haired avatar of Nature peering from a window of the Palais-Royal in a polka-dot cravatte ; Colette the music hall pin-up in Egyptian drag, with the pose of an Alma-Tadema voloptuary, half-cat, half- snake ; Colette the transvestite Belle Epoque dandy in sailor suit and frock coat, a new George Sand for the industrial age ; Colette the sphinxy cat-lover, the sinister old woman, the sapphic poseur, the commercial beautician and vinagry socialite. If ever a writer has imposed herself through the image, it is Colette. Her photo-album is not only her autobiography, it is the scaffolding of her fame, a fame which has now long deserted the quill-driving class. She is the Greta Garbo of letters.
When Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette died in 1954 at the age of eighty-one, she had come to incarnate not a historical era but an entire nation. An incarnation as formidable as that of any politician, as populist as any writer can be and as flamboyant as national heroines are allowed to be. The only French woman to have been permitted a state funeral, she had, at the end, accumulated around herself a panoply of signature images : the blue lamp of her last home at 9 rue de Beaujolais, a harem of devious and secretive cats, occult rooms of opulent paper-weights and sulphides, a whole decor, in fact, of mystic gardens and secluded boudoirs presided over by those kohled eyes of an Egyptian cat. And as her nation dragged itself out of the shadow of the Nazi Occupation, desperate in its humiliation for some recoverable prestige, the woman who had given the world Gigi and sent her old friend Maurice Chevalier around the globe singing "Zank 'eavens for little girls" in a sun-dappled Bois de Boulogne was the cultural saviour of the hour. Almost alone among serious writers, she had pulled a nostalgic rabbit out of the collective hat.
For many years subsequently Colette and Gigi were inseparable in the Anglo-Saxon imagination. The book, published in 1951, was a gorgeous regression into the Belle Epoque world of metropolitan priviledge which she had explored with greater bitterness in her earlier novels. In the climate of Cold War ideologies and attitudinizing class warfare it seemed an act of outright sentimentalism, if also one whose instant popularity showed the need for a comforting vision of a recent French past whose luxury and sophistication were unassailable.
But above all it sported a libant and amorous innocence of which the French have always been mawkishly proud. A rich and disillusioned young man, a precocious and untamed girl who unknowingly resists an ineluctable fate : a sexual fairy tale complete with wicked aunts and set in a sumptuous decor of Worth bijouterie, polished broughams and macassared hair. Timeless innocence and the exertion of erotic conquest are given an exquisite national form and the Nation, peering at itself longingly in this self-distorting looking-glass, sees itself as restored to its pristine moral virginity. France, always inclined to see herself as glamorously and dynamically embodied in female form, is Gigi...mercurial, canny, ingenue, a little petulant but obstinately pure at heart. A plucky naif adrift in a cruel and unpredictable sea of worldly manipulations.
The soapy anglophone movie, however, with its Cecil Beaton pageantries, preposterously sacchrine musical interludes sung in grotesque accents and the sweet unforced atmosphere of an afternoon's tea-time gossip betrayed Colette's original with some virtuosity. The France of 1900 to which the plot of the novel returns had become a fixed point in the imaginative empire of European nostalgia. The Moulin Pouge, La Goulue and frilly can-cans stood high in the mythology of wistful male frivolity.
The film successfully internationalized the plush bourgeois side of this phantom Paris, and in doing so further distorted the image of Gigi’s creator. For Colette was never the purveyor of ornamentally risqué Parisian love-intrigues which her reputation had kegun to immortalize. Gigi ( ironically perfectly embodied in the waspishly turbulent Katherine Hephurn ) is in Colette's tale the victim of a plot hatched by two older women to bring her to her knees in the sexual arena. She bristles with nubile animal malice and a prescient resent directed against the world of men. At the heart of the writer's vision of male-female love there lies, more than anything else, a ritual but sedulous, blood-drawing warfare. And Gigi, last in a long line of adolescent sexual warriors going cack to the early Claudine, is a combattant struggling for survival in a brutal joust whose stark outcome is either endurable happiness or equally perdurable pain.
Perhaps the most famous scene in the book is one in which Gigi's Aunt Felicia gives her a lesson in cosmetic weaponry and in the correct use of precious stones. It is meant to be a preparation for the sex war. "Never wear baroque pearls", she warns direly, "Not even as hat-pins." Gigi is to avoid emeralds devoid of the elusive tint of aristocratic blue, sapphires that are not from Kashmir, "family jewels", cameos and engraved amethysts. This is not a lecture in taste. Stones are instruments of war. Shy and proud men give them, as do predators, who give the biggest specimens of all. But women give them only to humiliate. "Never wear second-rate jewels," she finally advises. "wait till the really good ones come to you."
This long, sinister scene, set in Aunt Alicia's goblin-like lair of Persian rugs, lemon Directoire-era wood with a grain "as transparent as wax" and red Chinese vases, is the story's still center and the only one which the film faithfully renders. In it are two female types that dominate Colette's universe : the brimming adolescent and the decaying courtesan or mondain. The latter is always vampiric, unctuous with an over-ripened sensuality that has its own ruthless logic in a world which has both pampered and disillusioned it. Aunt AIicia, at seventy, is no longer the man-eater who once gobbled up whole fortunes with the voracity of some human mantis. In her Chantilly lace cap and shot taffeta tea-gown she is the perfect aged bourgeoise, but a wicked Aunt nevertheless. Only her old photographs reveal the predator in sylphyd's form, with her heart-shaped mouth and wrist "like a swan's neck." Inspecting her neice's neck as one would a race horse's, she sighs : "With teeth like that I could have swallowed up Paris, and much of the rest of the world into the bargain. As it was, I had a good bite of it."
Alicia de Saint-Efflam connects Gigi the half-savage faun with the larger world of erotic Amazons, the cocottes, or grandes horizontales of the demi-monde, that twilit world which fascinated Colette all her life. The latter gravitates towards it because there, and nowhere else, the laws of sex are paramount. There, the sexuality of men ( unlike the exterior world which they normally inhabit ) is their dominant characteristic. And there women are predaceous, restless forces of nature while their lovers are bored sybarites, listless sensualists for whom the usual masculine energies are unsatisfying. Our century's greatest psychologist of sex in the novel conducts her experiments in closed laboratories constructed on a small scale in which only the essential drives can determine outcomes. Her fables are like exotic aquaria in which flamboyant fighting-fish of opposing sex nip, peck and tear each other's fins. As Cocteau once observed : "When her characters make declarations of love, they deaw blood." In her orchidaceous arenas, gladiators in boa feathers and silk top hats fight it out to the death.
This ferocity of vision was lost from view in France itself, and was perhaps the source of her reputation's temporary decline in the 60s. The inevitable attempt at a coup-de-grace was delivered by the critic Henri Peyre in 1965 in an essay published in a collection with the dainty title Feminine literature in France. It is a case-history in a certain kind of male intellectual distaste for Colette. Admitting the florid skill of her nevertheless "ridiculously overpraised style", he accuses her of being "antediluvian", bourgeois, her "implicit ideals" revelling in tales of arranged marriages and a scrofulous world of "old roues...old courtesans aping the women of the middle class" and "rancidly stuffy" boudoirs and bedrooms. In short, he concludes, a pre-World War I microcosm "adorned and powdered as in some Alexandrian tale retold by Pierre Louys." And worst of all, her males are risible shadows, brainless gigolos incapable, one assumes, of true revolutionary feelings. As the authoress admits in melancholy tones: "I have not come near those men whom others call great. They have not sought me."
What Peyre found repulsive in his subject was precisely the source of her greatness. Her sin, to him, was her failure to conjure a vision of sexual love consonant with progressive ideology. She does not admit the possibility of oontemporary relationships with their demand of "comradeship", unstinting and placid equality and fanatical candour. Her heroines are not soixante-huitards who engage their partners politically and with whom ( as Peyre lyrically describes it ) they merrily discuss "politics, ethics, ideas and aesthetics." There is no red sun of radical enlightenment dawning on her dark and "antediluvian" world, no nascent social-constructivist feminism poised to rescue her headstrong and powerful wome from the vortex of their own making.
Her peasant intuitions drives a grim hole through the fabric of progressivist optimism, whose middle-class buoyancy and wish-fulfillment she destroys with lethal intelligence. Colette's 'world is not the sanitized and harmless one we wish to inhabit with a collection of peaceful ideologies ; it is the real one charged with archaic instincts in which we do, half unaware of its real nature, groping to avoid its fangs and claws. One in which self-deluders are punished, as Colette once notoriously said of feminists, with "the whip and the harem." And one in which everything, from the wearing of Kashmir sapphires to the conducting of marriage negociations, from outings to the Palais de Glace to a first kiss, is governed by the tyrannical rythmns of Nature.
But she had also, of course, a biographic myth, a myth which had placed her from the beginning fair and square on the side of the oppressed, if not in their ranks. For her career had started not just with a book, the Claudine a l'Ecole of 1900, but with a marriage - or rather, a state of much-publicized slavery in the ghost-writers' harem of her husband, the appalling but complex Henri Gauthiers-Villars, alias Monsieur Willy, the corpulent and lecherous cad of Belle Epoque literature.
Insofar as Willy is now seen as troll-like patriarchy incarnate, Colette has fallen easily into the mold of martyr. The child bride ( she was betrothed at eighteen ) spiritually abused, forced to write soft lesbian porn for her fraudulent husband "writer" who finally breaks free to both expose him and reclaim her life : it is a melodrama of self-emancipation, and one that went far towards making her a Paris celebrity at the time, as she slid from respectable marriage into scandalous lesbianisrn in the legendary circle of Nathalie Barney.
But the Colette-Willy union, which lasted thirteen years, was never quite the simple abomination it was made out to be. There was more to the legend of the fat cruel Sultan and his waifish slave than met the eye. And Colette's flight from the provinces to Paris in the arms of Willy is the outcome of elements of her own backround which are themselves intrinsic to her nature. For Colette was never just a rootless ancilla for the overbearing Willy. From the first, she was an unsurpassed regurgitator of childhood, and a writer who derived inexhaustible substance from her mother, the fabulous, pagan "Sido". Sido is the lynch-pin to Colette's existence, and it is to Sido and to that childhood that we turn, as Colette did in later life, to unlock the riddles.
Sido was the daughter of one-quarter Black chocolate manufacturer narned Henri-Marie Landoy. She moved to Brussels in her youth and enjoyed its intellectual bohemia in the oompany of her journalist brothers before marrying a Burgundian landowner from the village of Saint-Savour-en-Puisaye in 1857. The marriage was not a success. Womanizing and drunkenly brutal, Jules Robineau-Duclos, whom Sido and the villagers called "The Savage" ( just as she called her own father "The Gorilla" ) assaulted her so violently that in self-defence she disfigured him with a heavy candlestick. After the birth of two children, Achille and Juliette, the Savage died and in 1855 she remarried, to a gentle and ineffectual tax oollector named Jules-Joseph Colette. In the family home in Saint-Saveur, in 1873, the girl who came to be known as “Minet-Cheri" was born.
From the countless recollections which the famous daughter began to write from her fifties on we have perhaps the most complete and completely self glorifying personal archaeology of a childhood ever undertaken in print. The Burgundy of the 1870s was a rawly rural place little touched by the rising industrial culture. Local post-card firms like Thin et Mouchon and Arthur Havoue have left us dozens of images of Saint-Saveur at this time, with its tortuous, bicycle-cluttered streets, its Mouchon hardware store displaying the latest sewing machines, its blankly suspicious peasant faces staring down what they know will be an indifferent witness.
There too is the river Loing choked with melancholy reeds, to which the girl prefered the dozens of stagnant ponds nearby, a fact which French critics gaily ascribe to a preference druidique. Withdrawn and archaic as the Wessex of Tess, the village world in the heart of the Yonne region is the setting for a pagan reverie in which a fervid intimacy with Nature - the intimacy of intense female solitude - is ecstatically claimed. Her third husband, Maurice Goudeket later left an eery portrait of the aging writer in his Pres de Colette, in which he describes her licking poisonous berries, eating leaves and caressing the backs of insects alighted upon the backs of her hands - all in order to savour the intricate surfaces of Nature directly. He goes on :
“...with her nose and forehead covered with yellow pollen, her hair in disorder and full of twigs, a bump here and a scratch there, her face innocent of powder and her neck moist, stumbling along out of breath, she was just like a bacchante after libations.”
The child was mother to the wonan. In Sido, the paean to her mother written in later life, we also see Sido herself as the pantheist progenitor of Colette. A figure uncannily prefiguring the old woman described by Goudeket. Here is Sido in a snow-storm :
“But when the din was at its height, there would be my mother, peering through a big brass-rimmed magnifying glass, lost in wonder as she counted the branched crystals of a handful of snow she had just snatched from the very jaws of the West wind as it flung itself upon our garden.”
Elsewhere, she remembered Sido dancing a mournful nocturnal rite alone in the garden as her eldest daughter Juliette gave birth in an upstairs room.
The cthonic mother who hurled apostrophes at the four point of the compass, who refused to lend her lobelias and dwarf roses to the church for Corpus Christi day and who gleefully conjured up everywhere "unexpected crises, burgeonings, metamorphoses and dramatic miracles" was a proleptic vision of Colette herself as garden-tending fertility icon, a trowelling Venus of Nuremburg impossibly knowledgable of the shape and name of every leaf. "She wanted to have the world to herself," Colette goes on, "deserted, in the form of a little enclosure with a trellis and a sloping roof. She wanted the jungle to be virgin but, even so, inhabited only by swallows, cats and bees, and the huge spider balancing atop his wheel of lace silvered by the night."
This isolated world bifurcated spiritually into two opposed camps. On the one hand, the telepathically connected world of women, animals and Nature; on the other, the alienated and thoroughly bewildered world of men : the Corilla, the Savage, and lastly the Quixotic father, whose principle achievement as an officer in the French army was to have had his leg amputated at the Battle of Marignan. Jules-Joseph, in fact, is the very model of Absurd Male so prominent in the fiction.
This would-be writer used to prepare in advance all the materials necessary for the writing of books, sealing wax, costly nibs, elaborate ink-pots and - a touch worthy of a Machado de Assis character like Ouincas Borba - volumes of fine paper tooled with the titles he was going to write : “My Campaigns", "Marshal MacMahon seen by one of his officers", "Elegant Algebra," etc. After his death it was found that there was not a single word written in any of them, an inefficiency carried over into the family's finances.
The Colette family system, potentially so neurotic, enveloped the whole of her childhood, a childhood superabundant in both detail and symbol. It only began to teeter into disaster with her sexual maturity. As she became marriagable, it collapsed completely, her potential dowry evaporated, and a fourth Absurd Male appeared as the saving knight.
The 35-year old Willy, son of the august academic publisher Albert Gauthier-Villars, who was later to publish both Marie Curie and Einstein and who was a friend of Colette's father, descended upon Saint-Saveur, a kind of porn-loving Pygmalion, suave, metropolitan and eruditely libertine. She married him in 1893, after a genuine infatuation which Colette scholars find extremely difficult to swallow and which is usually put down to the hormonal exoticism of adolescence. The marriage photograph straws a stern, unhappy and obviously ambivalent village affair trooping amid bare, clipped trees. A funeral.
Aside from that of Sartre-de Beauvoir, the Willy-Colette union is the French intelligensia's most notoriously sadistic. In her late memoir Mes apprentissages, published in 1936 five years after the unnoticed death of Willy, she claimed the right of the victor to write the history. Willy emerges badly.
Physically repulsive, paunchy and slick, a consummate con-man, his enormous fame in fin-de-siecle Paris derived from a music column in the Echo de Paris whose points of view were borrowed from an obscure and exploited musicologist named Pierre de Breville. He made money by using chains of ghost writers to fabricate pieces that bore his name. This factory system, not unusual in 1900s Paris, was then extended to his wife. The Claudine notebooks, her first written accounts of her childhood, which Willy later destroyed, were turned into the hugely successful Claudine novels, published under his name.
Willy, the man who lived in bachelor squalor amid heaped illegal German post-cards, created a commercial soft-porn sensation overnight not only by locking his wife in a room for four hours a day but also by creating around her an industrial media machine of astonishing sophistication.
In the first place, there were the novels themselves, titillating romps set initially in a provincial village school in which homosexual headmistresses, schoolgirls in heat and school inspectors dance a merry-go-rouncd of gay and sophomoric promiscuity. The first Claudine book, Claudine a l'ecole , actually ends during a village fete with the headmistress and the inspector in bed together, surprised by one of the voyeur-girls, like the snorting climax to a British "Carry On At School" film.
The effect in 1900 was exhilarating. The Claudine series became the kind of contrebande which English pornography smugglers squeezed into false humps in order to get them by Edwardian customs inspections, giving even greater flesh to the Blue Paris of gentlemanly legend. A place as morally foul and stewlike as eighteenth century Istanbul.
Then there was Claudine herself. Sasha Guitry described her as ''...depraved, charming and universal," a true early version of Lolita. She was also the first literary character, along with her contemporary Peter Pan, to be the theme of a mass production of accessories. Within months there were Claudine hats, Claudine hair-cuts, Claudine ice-creams, Claudine cigarettes, skin lotions ancl photographic plates. Within two years the juggernaut had moved to the stage at the Bouffe-Parisiens, with Claudine incarnated by Willy's lover, the Algerian cabaret vedette Polaire, and later by Colette herself. In a photograph of her youth, we see Colette almost deliberately manufactured as an embryonic Claudine slouching in a hammock in her sailor-suit, two enormous pythonesque braids draping a languorous adolescent's body. Willy the impressarial pornographer had only applied industrial method to the inner material of Colette herself. For Colette was to re-invent Claudine throughout her life.
Colette-Willy, in fact, was an inevitable symbiosis, not a soap opera of male-female tyranny. Willy's mass production factory, with its thousands of signed photographs, media events and its intimate liason with the metropolitan fabricators of scandal, invented not just the Claudine phenomenont of Colette herself. He provided for her a revolutionary kind of fame, one based exclusively on the media. The books did not need the recommendations they got from high-literary critics like Rachilde on the Mercure ( a friend of the ubiquitous Willy anyway ). They relied on the 1900 equivalents of shows like "Life-styles of the Rich and Famous" and "Hard Copy." "Colette" was invented like any TV star, given poses, personae, scandals and redemptions. And just as Claudine had given rise to tooth-brushes and coiffures, so Colette's beauty products of the 30s were designed to fill stores everywhere from Biarritz to Calais. Colette remained all her life a perfervid media animal constantly looking for breaks.
After their separation she wrote to him "I owe you everything...without you I am nothing." The photographic record of their miserable but productive union always shows the same scenes : Willy's cocked eye-brow and handlebar moustaches, his cold, heavy-ridded gaze of a small saurian ; the heavily over-decorated Victorian interiors in which the ill-matched bourgeois couple sit, he concentrating on his food, she gazing off forlornly into space in indescribable boredom. Saint Willy, he calls himself, patron des Claudines.. The reptile Willy who bitterly grieves the dead mistress who had given him his only child. The cold-blooded wag who sits in ladies' compartments on trains and calls himself the Marquise de Belboeuf ( a butch lesbian who later became Colette's lover ). The malignant cultural broker who out of spite oould sabotage the career of an Eric Satie. He is the Dracula of the Colette myth, but he is an intellectual cannibal with excellently useful connections in the vital salon of Arman de Caivallet and of Jeanne Muhlfeld, broker of reputations, where, as Cocteau said, the chess-game of immortality was played.
Out of this eccentric maelstrom emerged the mature, animistic and elegant Colette : with Dialogues des betes, her first signed work, in 1904, with Minne and L'Egarement de Minne ( united in one volume as L’Ingenue libertine, The Innocent Libertine, in 1909 ) and with La Vagabonde in 1910, which was nominated for the Prix Goncourt.
The Innocent Libertine is not generally considered to be a masterpiece or even a good novel. But it is her first roman d'analyse applied to the subject of male-female warfare. Its insinuating, sensually accurate rendering of sexual surrender culminates in a scene of nightmarish beauty as her heroine, Minne, experiences her first orgasm in a paroxysm of savage energy, her head thrashing about "like a child with meningitis."
The story is merely an odyssey of the nervous system to reach this point.
It opens with Minne, another fifteen year old Claudine, being read a newspaper report by her mother. Out on the Peripherique rival gangs are committing murders over a sixteen year old prostitute named Desfontaines "Copper-Rnob". The secluded, what would now be called BCBG girl in her monied appartment has found the alter-ego she needs in order to extracite herself from the claustrophia of a probably hysterical life as a wife-and-mother impeccably separated from the brutal and vivid reflexes of the body.
Her journey out of virginity and into the body, therefore, must take her on a roller-coaster of c1ass treason, as she wanders through the slums looking for the nubile bodies of proletarian ephebes. But her destiny, of course, doesn't lie in these hormone and eye-driven divigations ; it lies with a boy of her own class, her cousin Antoine, the true antagonist deriving from her own world. As soon as this relation begins to congeal into the erotic speculation preceding marriage, it reverts to the primitive duelling of animals, a cycle of torment, wounding and mistrust. Looking into a mirror, and thinking of the feral Copper-Knob, utters her intimate desideratum for herself : "I am sinister." The narrator later amplifies : "...the cruel little queen who hands out poison and knives to an entire imaginary people."
"The Innocent Libertine," especially in its last pages, is a curiously beautiful book because Minne's ultimate surrender to Antoine has been shown to be the climax of an obscure and subconscious wandering over which has had no control, and which results from a chemically treacherous clash of animal drive and cultural form ( Antoine, too, turns at the climactic moment from a nice middle-class boy into a "harsh, voloptuous mask of Pan" ). The endlessly tortuous game-playing and manipulative infidelities are demonstrated to obey an unswerving logic determined by the curve of female self-knowledge. A Dionysian discharge suddenly carries that knowledge into its apogee but beyond culture, which can ever be its repository. And this upward spiral into pleasure is made luminous to us through a style akin to Stendhal's voluptas psychologica, a psychological voloptuosity which has only rare counterparts in the Anglo-American novel, and which follows the phosphorescent oddities of sexual mood with the lightness and swiftness of a Japanese "master of the brush" painting crickets and flies.
Minne, like all Colette's adolescent girls - precursors perhaps of that schoolgirl first seen by the narrator of Nabokov's "The Enchanter" one day in the Tuileries in 1939 and who later metamorphosed into the most famous sylphyd of them all - is the perpetrator of guerilla war. Her betrayals and sadisms are punished by professional surveillance hired by her jealous husband, which she then evades with war-like vengeance. But this is not the warfare of oonventional marriage ( as Jules Renard, a contemporary, wrote in his diary, "Every marriage maintains itself by means of a grain of hatred." )
It is the groping collision of hostile principles, the woman evading the little black box into which men have put her, but then, having destroyed the prison, going back to its builder for a different consummation. The "duel of male and female," as Colette liked to put it, ends up in stasis - a term which originally refered to the stalemated warfare inside a Greek city-state. Minne, somewhat rarely for a Colette heroine, finds the happiness that deadlock can paradoxically unlock.
What gives this exploration of spiritual antagonism its carnal force is not only Colette's unremitting1y physical and immanent prose ; it is also her belief in a kind of Ovidian metamorphosis connecting the animal and human worlds. Of her most famous male character, Cheri, in the 1920 novel of that name, she wrote that he was an animal spirit trying to be re-born as a human. She famously described herself, during the latter part of her unhappy marriage to Willy, as "the caged squirrel", though Sylvain Bonmariage had a less flattering take on her : "She is a cat in heat for whom life is a succession of roof-tops." And in "Dialogues des betes" she had injected into French literature some of its most vital anthropomorphic characters since La Fontaine : Kiki-la-Doucette the cat and Toby-chien the terrier, who bicker and tussle like a married couple.
In one of her strangest novels, "La Chatte" of 1933, the Minne-Antoine couple is re-invented as Main-Camille, a union of dreamy male and robust female mediated by a shared cat, Saha, which he has hrought into the marrige. Jealously crazed by his affection for Saha, Camille throws the cat out of a window, forcing the shocked Antoine to retreat once more into the secretive and inert realm of organic things which he secretly craves, becoming as he does so a kind of spooky feline himself. Colette, as Peyre charged, loved the intrigues of bourgeois marriage-making, with its venal family politics and its crass divisions of financial spoils. But, like E.M. Forster, she also believed that life is not unbearable because it is a struggle but because it is a romance, the romance in her case merely being rooted via a gardener's shrewd eye in the cannibal love-making of animals. For unlike Forster - that other devotee of middle-class nuptials - she did not come from suburbia.
Just as the vertical exploration of the feminine psyche reached the apex of its fashionability between approximately 1890 and 1914 in Ibsen, Lawrence, Zweig and Woolf, so too did anthropomorphism and the study of human-animal correspondences. Kipling's "Jungle Book", Jules Renard's "Histoires naturelles", Apollinaire's "Le Bestiare" and Remy de Courmont's brilliant and whimsically charming "Physique de l' amour" ( translated by Ezra Pound as "The Natural Philosophy of Love" ) - all were heavily in the air. Gourmont was an early admirer of Colette's and, like the deistic nature writer Francis who wrote the preface for "Dialogues des bêtes", a kindred spirit. His exquisitely written encyclopedia of animal sex, which revels in imagery as dense as hers, tells us that "...the sexual inventions of humanity are nearly all anterior or even exterior to man. There is not one whose model, even perfected, is not offered him by the animals."
Gourmont describes complex patterns of parasitism bet;veen the sexes. Take the bonellie sea-worm, for example, whose female is one thousand times bigger than the male. The male is a "miniscule filament" who lives in her oesophagus and who descends like a mote of dust into her oviducts, so puny that he was long confused with true parasites. Elsewhere, delving into the sex-lives of "the bold female scaraboea, adroit chalicodomes, cold wise lycoses and proud, terrible mantes", he provides a perfect picture of a Colette male, especially the doomed beautiful boys like Cheri : "In the insect world the male is the frail, elegant sex, gentle and sober, with no employment save to please and to love. To the female the heavy work of digging, of masonry, and the danger of the hunt and of war."
And copulation is everywhere sparring. Hermaphrodite snails whip out needle sharp stilettoes with which they simultaneously transfix each other. The terrible female green grasshopper chews and swallows the genital ampulla, then her quivering digestible mate. As does the Alpine analote, a veritable "cannibal Marguerite de Bourgogne." The wretched male ephippigere has a spermatophore half his whole body size, which the female eats as hors d'oeuvre before proceding to the rest of him. "This male flesh," Gourmont comments drily, "is doubtless comforting to the mother to be."
There is a scene in "The Innocent Libertine" in which Minne and Antoine watch two snails copulate on a garden wall, a sight with which Colette, as the daughter of a part-time snail breeder, must have been intimately familiar. It arouses in them a fascinated unease, a shock of recognition. The long, slimey, arduously tentative embrace, the tense adhesion sometimes lasting hours. In some gastropods, the male, equipped with a sly little Cupid's bow, fires a spermicidal arrow called the "telum amoris", or arrow of love, into the female's integuments - love by hyperdermic injection. In many, the embrace is followed by pursuit, capture and cannibal feast.
Like Preying Mantises, orb-weaving spider and cerapotonic midges, the amorous snail proves the truth of de Gourmont's gloomy observation that it is better to be an extreme feminist than a moderate one, since Nature affords no example of any equality of the sexes. There, love is agon between predator and victim.
And yet, for Colette animals are not just a distantly ancestral version of humans, nor blindly bellicose war-horses of evolution. They are also windows into a contiguous spiritual universe, an alternative world of feeling. Animals are actually at the heart of her method of measuring the problems of personality. Rilke, the writer closest to her on this score, has left the record of an intuition identical to hers in his many poems treating of animals. His eighth Duino Elegy, which deals with the psychic world of both children and animals, expresses Colette's affinity with both :
“If the animal moving towards us so securely in a different direction had our kind of consoiousness, it would wrench us around and drag us along its path. But it feels its life as boundless, unfathomable, and without regard to its own oondition : pure, like its outward gaze. And where we see the future, it sees all timeand itself within all time, forever healed.
Deep in the animal's face is visible a "pure unsuperintended element" which Rilke in a beautiful phrase called "Nirgends ohne Nicht", the "nowhere without the no." In a letter of 1924, he elaborated :
“These, indeed, these oonfidants of the Whole, the animals, who are most at home in a broader segment of oonsciousness, most readily oonduct us, once again across, and are near to the medial condition.”
The animal gaze that "calmly looks us through and through"...it is exactly what one sees in those innumerable photographs of Colette with her cats, her eyes witchily mirroring theirs, momentarily non-human and fixed on a point which humans, it sees, cannot meet.
In her two greatest novels, "Cheri" and "The Last of Cheri" ( 1926 ), Colette creates a pandemian prose which matches not only her "hermaphroditic brain" constantly flickering between male and female, but also her primitive intuitions of animality. The world of these novels is indeed like a forest, a forest of narotic colors and scents through which move ghostly animal spirits tragically incarnated as moderns. Like the strange "windigo" spirits of Pacific Indians, they roam as lost souls through a world where they do not truly belong, biting flesh like animals.
Cheri charts the doomed affair between a 49-year old courtesan, Lea, de Lonvalle, and the 20-year old son of one of her rivals, the repentant and "jug-shaped" Madame Peloux - a "chubby little blond Eros" turned sour. Lea and this boy, "Cheri", are a couple who can never normalize themselves in society by virtue of her occupation and their widely separated ages. They are, therefore, abandoned to themselves, and to an erotic mother-son pathology. Like two symbiotic organisms, they cannot let go of each other and the failed intimacy which they set in motion leads inexorably, in the second Cheri novel, to the boy’s pathetic suicide.
Without question, Cheri is Colette's most mysterious and commanding male character. He has no intellect, is one of the "brainless gigolos." But his power comes from elsewhere. Colette claimed for him "an illiterate splendour." Like the Tadzio of Death in Venice, he is an animate kouros, a Greek youth of glyptic beauty. Enigmatically phlegmatic and passive, he is as chiselled as a Phidias statue, a powerhouse of cruel, formal glamour. We see him first in the novel's very opening scene, a spoilt child trying to grab her pearls, as gorgeously coloured as a butterfly :
"In front of the pink curtains barred by the sun he danced, black as a dainty devil on a grill. But as he drew near the bed he became white again in silk pyjamas doe-skin mules."
His glamour is concentrated in his eye-lashes, eye-lashes that are lovingly described over and over. Late in the novel his friend Desmond watches him as he sleeps and admires his beauty : "Especially his lashes, his lashes are - he stared at Cheri's lashes, lustrous and thick, and at the shadow they shed over the brown-black and blue-white of his eye." These baby-sofy, raven-blue lashes "revelled out into two winged points" suggest his moral essence - "...mutinous but amenable, insufficiently chained and yet incapable of being free."
Cheri is more or less forced to marry the young and extremely naive Edmée, a disastrous mix-match which forces him back into the arms of his mother figure. There are subtle arguments between them as to the colour scheme of the house they buy on the Boulevard d'Inkermann, Cheri insisting on strong, deep colours that will hark back to the womb-like Pompeian decor of Lea, whose rooms are "mysterious and tinged like the insides of water-melons " and Edmée struggling to maintain a little oasis somewhere of virginal white, even if it is only a marble bust. The house's decor is thus yet another sexual battleground, with hostile oolours struggling for dominance, and Edmée's doomed innocence has to recoil before Cheri's barbaric onslaught of pumpkin-yellow cushions.
But over both of them towers the stupendous, fleshy, sybaritic Lea, a "perfect vampire" who has "never had to soil her lips on a wrinkled body." She is the culmination of the courtesans who litter Colette's pages, and the essence of female power as she conceives it.
In the period of the Third Republic, and in particular the years between 1870 and 1914, courtesans were a society unto themselves : perhaps the first classless capitalist women in history. Blanche d'Antigny, La Paiva, Cléo de Mérode, La Belle Otero - the grandes horizontales maintained a sub-culture which circulated billions of francs in international shares. There is a bitchy scene in Cheri where Lea and Madame Peloux oompare their investment portfolios in order to spy on each other's careers. Lea thrusts by describing the killing she has just made on Oil Prefered shares ; Charlotte Peloux counters by reporting a wise investment in Pressed Bricks Common. The courtesan is not a male slave, but a financial iconoclast cutting her own swathe through the world with vulgar panache.
She has even left her own distintive architecture in Paris, like the Paiva palace on the Champs- Elysées, now the Travellers' Club, famous for its solid onyx stairwell. Lea belongs to this class, uprooted and marooned by their own scandalous freedom.
Her tea-parties with Charlotte and their declining cronies are witty vignettes of the courtesan Old Guard descending into absurdity and narrowing their vampirism down purely to money and assets. But Lea, unlike them, has a fatal and tender weakness - the sad animal Cheri, who can only see past her age in the tumult of sex. She is doomed to a kind of gradual, crepuscular suffering which eats away at her until old age paralyzes the affair.
Colette seems to have thought that female sexulity polarized around two little-explored and intractably mysterious moments in a woman's life : the first love and the last. Why are these two moments so filled with inexplicable gravity? Because they are turning points of renunciation, renunciations that bear more heavily on women than on men. Colette's aging women face that moment so subtly described by Stefan Zweig in his story "The Burning Secret", in which a middle-aged Jewish woman sitting in the restaurant of a lonely spa sees a beautiful young officer on the far side of the room ; feeling her own desire for him, and knowing that she will not turn away from him, she also knows that a climatic moment of her life will be reached with him, the last love-making which will simultaneously be the renunciation of sex. Colette's adolescents face the same terrible moment with respect to the renunciation of innocence. In both cases, loss of innocence and experience is brought about by the hostile and desired agency of men. Wanting to escape men, wanting them : the adult woman splits into a nostalgia for the first renunciation and a bitter yearning for the last.
These moments carry a spiritual weight that happiness and sex do not, because the latter are dependent on men, and therefore ephemeral. Colette's own dabbling in lesbian amours did not save her from this, and does not save any of her fictive women. Love is a passing opportunity which is never really taken.
Lea is certainly a vampire, just like that same Paiva who kept her dead husband mummified in a German castle. But within her is enacted, in lightning-swift moods, the drama of dissolution and re-birth that marks the cruel climax of the erotic odyssey. As Bataille says, it is "a quest not unallied to death." As Colette puts it "...an abyss from which love emerges, pale, taciturn and full of nostalgia for death."
Lea herself reverts back to same ancient earth element, her hands now covered, as she looks at them towards the end of the novel, with minute parallelograms like those which a drought carves, after the rains, on banks of clay. In The Last of Cheri Cheri visits her years later after the War and finds a "jolly old gendarme", a sexless matriarch whose only advice to him is "You should have your urine analyzed."
The brilliant surface of amorous war has been shattered like a crust of ice. Cheri slinks off resolved to kill himself, and as he goes down her stairs he feels the steps underneath his feet dissolve "like the bridge of sleep between two dreams.''
This moment is the climax of Colette's own exploration of love in the novels. It is one which - despite all the accessible vividness and wit of Colette's style - we now have some difficulty in fathoming. For Colette's sexual world is harshly at odds with our own, or rather the world that our ideologies decree. Her characters are not sexual neurotics, which makes them bizarre to us. Their antogonisms are not political, which make them handsomely archaic. Sexual love in this universe is evocative of the rythms of life and death, an intuition which we deny with fanatical optimism. But her characters are not banally alienated by optimism , and the mewing resents which it engenders. They stand aloof like solitary animals enduring more enigmatic sufferings. They are like the figures of stained-glass windows - dimly recognizable, grown strangely improbable, but more vivid than the decipherers below.
Robert Brasillach, the brilliant and pugnacious pro-fascist French novelist and critic, was shot by firing squad on Feb. 9, 1945, on the direct orders of Gen. Charles de Gaulle himself. The James Dean of French fascism, as historian Alice Kaplan calls Brasillach in her lucid and gripping new book "The Collaborator," met a dismal fate that was shared by countless other collaborationists. But Brasillach's death was different.
The opening sequence of Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" shows Rome from the air as if seen from a passing helicopter. The city is made to look like Manhattan, a forest of towers and canyon streets. The subliminal message is clear enough: If Rome was the Manhattan of the ancients, then we naturally enough are the Romans of today. Americans have always modeled themselves on the Romans. And the Romans -- pragmatic, ruthless, patriotic, engineering-obsessed -- certainly look like the Americans of antiquity, a comparison made only the more alluring by what we perceive to be their pathological violence, their taste for lurid spectacle and their imperial overreach.
For 40 years, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, who died in January at age 74, was, as John le Carré called him, the “conjuror extraordinary of modern reportage.” His subject was the postcolonial world—its wars, madnesses, corruptions, and sufferings. Most famous for his powerful explorations of African conflicts in The Soccer War, The Shadow of the Sun, and Another Day of Life, Kapuściński also pondered the nature of empire in books on the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and Iran. No matter where he wandered, there was always a kinetic, restless quality to his prose, a lean style that perfectly translated the intense inquisitiveness of a perpetual mover, a nomad on the wing.