Monday, July 21, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“JOURNEY TO A HANGING” by Peter Wells (Vintage / Random House, $NZ44:99)

            I am sometimes so taken with a book that when I come to review it I feel the urge to rush to judgement before I do an analysis of it. This is the case with Peter Wells’ latest book Journey to a Hanging. I was so absorbed in it that I found it very hard to put it down, and galloped through its substantial text (about 400 closely-printed pages, before endnotes) in a couple of days. It is a vivid, insightful narrative and analysis of a set of tragedies in 19th century New Zealand. It is the product of close research and makes extensive use of the diaries, letters and testimonies of the people involved. It presents a credible set of arguments. And it is very, very readable.
Journey to a Hanging once again involves the printer, polymath, erstwhile Anglican missionary and gadfly William Colenso, of whom Peter Wells wrote his idiosyncratic biography The Hungry Heart two years ago. [Look up on the index at right my review of The Hungry Heart – as well as my reviews of two other books concerning Colenso by other people: Give Your Thoughts Life and William Colenso – His Life and Journeys]. As in The Hungry Heart, Wells sometimes places himself at the centre of the narrative. Among the many, mainly historical, photographs and illustrations that pepper the book’s glossy pages, there are the shots that Wells took while visiting sites where the historical events happened. He speaks of his “contrapuntal method of working.” (p.8) He notes that “my modus as a writer is to go to places, and pitch the historical past against the vagaries of the present” (p.9)
Again as in The Hungry Heart, Wells does not hesitate to speculate on people’s motives and to dramatize what he believes their intentions to have been. This time, however, he is more sparing in his speculations and is more restrained in his facetious asides. For these reasons among many others, I think Journey to a Hanging is a much stronger book than The Hungry Heart.
Despite his presence, William Colenso is not the focus of Journey to a Hanging. By rights, the book should be called Journey to Two Hangings, as that is what it is really about.
The first is the hanging and then the mutilation of the body of the Rev Carl Sylvius Volkner on 2 March 1865. Volkner, a German clergymen working for the Anglican Church Missionary Society, was murdered near his Hiona Church in Opotiki by Maori who were influenced by the Pai Marire (“Hauhau”) religion.
The second hanging is the execution (or perhaps judicial murder) of Kereopa Te Rau nearly seven years later, after his trial in Napier in late 1871. Kereopa was clearly only one of the people involved in Volkner’s death, and his role was indeed murky, but he had been pursued for years as the chief murderer and had taken refuge in Tuhoe country. The Tuhoe, tired of being harassed by government soldiers in search of him, handed him over to the Pakeha authorities and Kereopa’s trial and death followed. The cover blurb refers to these as “the events that set back New Zealand race relations by a century”, a phrase which is sourced to the historian Edmund Bohan on p.131.
Peter Wells is aware that this story has been told many times before, but through the lenses of different ages’ preconceptions and assumptions. Volkner was once seen as a martyr by Pakeha Christians (years after his death, his church was renamed St Stephen the Martyr). His murder, including the decapitation of his corpse and the eating of his eyes, was no more than an outbreak of cannibalistic barbarism. But then along came the Maori renaissance in the 1970s, and suddenly Volkner was recast as a government spy and his murder was the just retribution of Maori people then at war with colonisers and land-grabbers. As Wells writes:
the longer I worked on this story, the more I became aware that, even in the present, the interpretation of the ‘facts’ had an inherent instability. If Volkner had been regarded in the nineteenth century as a martyr, by 2014 he was dumped into the bin of political correctness: he was simply a spy and his death was, by implication, completely valid. He no longer had any narrative use. Kereopa Te Rau, in the same ever-balancing, ever-tilting narrative scales, was now viewed as unjustly hanged for a murder he did not commit. He was the leader of a rational political order whose anti-colonial drive was expressed through traditional Maori tikanga.” (p.12)
However, continues Wells, “The situation is complicated, much more so than the simple opposing points of view (Maori innocent and wounded, Pakeha evil and corrupt) that the contemporary interpretation allows.” (p.14)
Clearly one motivation for writing this book was Wells’ dissatisfaction with currently acceptable views of the events, which do not allow for nuance and which refuse to take seriously the worldviews of people in a past age. He quotes with approval Adam Gopnik when he said that “Historical criticism, which is ostensibly about trying to understand things as they were seen then, too often spends its time hectoring the dead about not having seen things as we do now.” (p.94)
In a chapter tellingly called “Rinsing Away the Blood”, Wells credits Paul Clark’s 1975 book Hauhau: The Pai Marire Search for Maori Identity for the view that
Rev Volkner’s death was a rational political act carried out with, so to speak, all due diligence in terms of Maori tikanga. Clark conceptualised the killing as ‘an execution’ by way of further meshing it in postcolonial political correctness. His analysis did have the value of removing the stain of barbarity and irrationality from the death, but he may have over-emphasised the spy charge and under-emphasised Te Rau’s role in the killing. What his account also left out – understandably, as it was the very force he was trying to provide a corrective against – was what Bishop Williams called the ‘phrensy’. Clark, a dispassionate academic, downplayed it entirely. Yet witness after witness used a single adjective to define the tenor of the events of the first and second of March 1865 – and this word was ‘mad’.” (p.149)
In effect, Wells is saying here that the revisionist view of the event prettifies it and cleans it up – “rinses away the blood” – and refuses to see that it was an act of violence carried out in conditions of near hysteria by people who had somehow been inflamed. This is of a piece with other of Wells’ warnings against prettifying or sentimentalising Maori history.  For example in his considered “Postscript” he notes “Once again I get a sense of how Maori life and history was [sic] so powerfully informed by the effects of the inter-tribal killing fields – almost as much as by colonisation, if we are all being honest.”(p.366)
None of this means that Wells wants to return to the simplistic view of Volkner as martyr, any more than he wants to see Kereopa as helpless victim. He wants to enter the minds of all the major participants in this story, and establish some balance by determining the worldview each had
He does this by dividing his narrative into two parts.
The first 150-or-so pages of Journey to a Hanging are called “Walking at Night Without Stars” and concern Volkner. He is characterised, sympathetically, as an outsider in colonial Pakeha society. Offered no funding or livelihood by the North German Missionary Society, which had sent him to New Zealand, he switched to the Anglican CMS. But he was at first offered no parish and had to play something of a servant role to missionaries like Robert Maunsell.  Like so many missionaries, he was often isolated and lonely. One conspicuous “success” in his life, in worldly terms, was marrying Emma Lanfear, ten years older than he was and a woman who brought money into the marriage. Wells does not caricature this marriage, as I feared he might, but presents it as a harmonious one, noting:
 “Carl Sylvius, in marrying her, may have hoped for late children. More practically, both may have chosen each other, seeing in it a union which offered to the other individual gifts. That is was not a great romance does not mean that deeper feelings did not develop. Many an arranged marriage ends better than those that start off in a full cacophony of love and its intoxications. Indeed there is every evidence, in the careful actions and tender sentiments that Carl Sylvius and Emma Lanfear later expressed, that they had found in each other a soul mate.” (p.62)
Wells’ chief interpretation of Volkner is that, as a German, he often misread the intentions of his English colleagues, and sometimes pushed himself forward in rather tactless ways. He appears to have lobbied and volunteered for the Opotiki parish, especially at a time when the Anglican mission was worried at how well Catholic missionaries were then doing in that area. When war came to the Waikato in the 1860s, Volkner did indeed send letters to Governor George Grey informing him of the movements of Maori forces (the “spy” charge). But, argues Wells, this was very much the action of a German who was still trying to establish his loyalty to an English polity. Besides which, the information he sent to Grey was no more than that which he shared with other CMS missionaries and they with him.
Volkner went to Auckland with his wife when the war sucked the local Whakatohea people in and placed the missionaries’ lives in danger. Wells says Volkner returned to Opotiki for genuinely religious and pastoral reasons. The Whakatohea had suffered defeat and Volkner saw it as his duty to comfort his parishioners at that time. Unfortunately for him, and partly encouraged by Pai Marire (“Hauhau”) missionaries, the Whakatohea now saw Pakeha missionaries like Volkner as part of the reason for their defeat. And so he returned to his own death. Wells quotes in detail the many graphic – and conflicting – accounts of how Volkner died.
The second part of Wells’ narrative is headed “Journey to a Hanging”. For 200-plus pages it examines the circumstances of Kereopa Te Rau’s trial and death. A year after the murder of Volkner, five Maori men had already been tried and executed (in Auckland) for their part in Volkner’s killing. At that trial, no witness gave a leading role in the killing to Kereopa. But by 1871 Kereopa, largely because he was the Pai Marire missionary who arrived in Opotiki just before Volkner was killed, was generally seen by Pakeha as the man who had incited Volkner’s killers to murder. And he had eaten Volkner’s eyes. (Wells is unflinching about this fact, much as it has been “rinsed away” in some other accounts.)
Wells spends much time characterising the Pakeha society of Napier where the trial took place, and the difficulties of making the trial a fair one. He notes that:
the dangers of creating a jury in a small town were great. But what made things even more difficult was that many of these men [on the jury] occupied positions in the quasi-military volunteer units of which the town proudly boasted. In Te Rau’s case, many of the men sitting in judgement on him held positions in either the Napier Rifles or the Napier Artillery. Pakeha men had a double presence, an invisible shadow in the small town. They were not only civilians, they were semi-conscripted fighters in a colonial war.” [pp.170-171]
As to the Crown’s case against Kereopa, he writes:
there was a problem with the case; a whole lot of problems. Let’s call them eyewitnesses. It was shockingly unclear as to who did what to whom in the actual event in which Rev Volkner was killed. Like the hanging of Mussolini or the killing of Saddam Hussein, these were crowd events, a tumult of people carried along by a wave of emotion. There were many hands arising from the crowd, and the precise problem was, looking back over the span of six years, it was no longer clear who was responsible for the act of murder itself. This was complicated even further by this extraordinary detail: the eyewitnesses being produced had actually participated as perpetrators. It was impossible to be present without, in a sense, being an accomplice. The problem of war is that there is no innocence. ‘A dirty period requires dirty men’ is a saying in contemporary war-torn Syria and this was definitely a dirty period in New Zealand’s brief history.” [pp.244-245]
The witnesses the Crown produced had, in effect, their own reasons to dissociate themselves from Volkner’s murder and to load the blame onto Kereopa. Wells does not present Kereopa as blameless. As he languished in Napier’s claustrophobic little prison before, during and after the trial, it is clear that Kereopa tried to ingratiate himself with the authorities, and evade the gallows, by dobbing in other people. He wrote a memo telling the Crown exactly where they could find the “rebel” Te Kooti if they wanted to capture him [p.331]. In the end, though, Wells presents Kereopa as asserting his identity in a very Maori way and as a man who clearly had some part in the killing of Volkner, but was not the chief instigator of it.
Naturally Wells spends time characterising the major Pakeha players in Kereopa’s trial, the judge (biased and unfair), the prosecuting counsel (experienced, tricky, and given all the advantages by the judge) and the defence counsel (willing but inexperienced, and not allowed to introduce evidence that would have established the context of the murder). He is more concerned, however, with three Pakeha who did not appear in the courtroom.
First, the defrocked former Anglican clergyman William Colenso. Colenso, as the trial got underway, wrote an extensive pamphlet “Fiat Justitia”, arguing that there was no real case against Kereopa, that the trial was excessive Pakeha “utu” when others had already been hanged for Volkner’s death, that the trial was unnecessary, would inflame Maori feeling and was based on unreliable evidence. Wells notes that Colenso’s arguments were never raised at the trial, but it is clear that the prosecution was aware of them and (without ever mentioning Colenso by name) that the prosecution attempted to quash any sympathy for Kereopa that Colenso may have aroused.
Second, the Anglican Bishop William Williams of Waiapu, in whose notional diocese the murder and trial took place. Wells does not characterise Williams very sympathetically, seeing him as longing nostalgically for the settled, paternalistic relationship of missionary and Maori that had existed before the wars. Williams had, however, been brave at a time when Pai Marire first arrived at his mission station. Says Wells:
 “Whatever else one can say about Williams – that he was a land thief, a hypocrite, a political animal, a church functionary – he was certainly not a coward. He displayed remarkable calmness in a frightening situation. He is also all for clarity and certainty – in a situation in which absolutely nothing is clear.” (p.214)
By this, Wells is implying ironically that Bishop Williams tried hard to reach a clear-cut decision about Kereopa’s case, but extensive letters he wrote to Donald McLean and others show that he was in fact very troubled in his mind about the trial. But he never broke ranks publicly with majority Pakeha opinion.
Bishop Williams was severely antagonistic towards the third Pakeha figure upon whom Wells focuses. This was the French Catholic nun Sister Mary Joseph (Suzanne) Aubert. Under the sincere impression that Kereopa had been either baptised or confirmed a Catholic – before he became Pai Marire – the bustling 36-year-old Aubert gained access to Napier jail and tried to arrange for a Catholic priest to hear Kereopa’s confession and accompany him to the gallows. She was, as she saw it, trying to save his soul. News of this outraged Bishop Williams, who saw Aubert’s intervention as the interference of a denomination which he detested anyway (as did the Low Church Colenso).
In the event it was Williams’ son, the Rev Samuel Williams, who accompanied Kereopa to the gallows, willy-nilly.
Wells’ own attitude towards Christianity is ambiguous at best (in the introductory chapter there is a slightly ironical smirk as he tells of his participating in an Anglican communion service at the Opotiki church). An element of farce creeps into the way he presents Aubert’s manoeuvres and Bishop Williams’ counter-manoeuvres on the night before Kereopa was hanged. Nevertheless, Wells’ sympathies are more on the side of Aubert and of Colenso than on the side of Bishop Williams. Like Volkner and like Kereopa, the French nun and the defrocked gadfly are to him “outsiders” from the mainstream of Pakeha opinion. Or perhaps they show that Pakeha colonial society was more diverse than recent revisionist history has allowed? Wells writes:
            “It is only too common to dismiss New Zealand’s colonial society in terms of its worst aspects but at times it is also necessary to expand our understanding and include the alternative universes of remarkable individuals like William Colenso and Mary Joseph Aubert. They were also members of colonial society.” (p.263)
Wells, by the way, has another reason to say positive things about colonial Pakeha society. After all, it was literate and “the entire trail of deceit and obfuscation of the Kereopa Te Rau trial is only available to us today because of the excellence of a nineteenth-century colonial bureaucracy.” (p.325)
I found this book completely absorbing and its nuanced arguments quite persuasive.
I save a few misgivings for the end.
There are times when Wells does rather overdo the pictorial scene-setting and the dramatization, allowing his imagination to get the better of him. I find this in passages such as:
But first we must creep along those dark, echoing hallways. It is another hot day, close, even though occasional showers skitter across the ground. We have to stand outside a cell and wait patiently for the turnkey, perhaps Thomas Maloney, to select the correct key, enter it into the lock, turn the lock then pull it back” etc. etc. (p.325)
I am a little dissatisfied at the way Wells presents the (small and incidental) role of the French Catholic priest Fr Garavel. Some months before Volkner’s murder, Garavel, coming to Opotiki from the Waikato, carried to the Whakatohea people a letter from Wiremu Tamihana, which turned out to be urging them to join the war against the British. It is highly unlikely that Garavel (who was quickly hustled out of the country by his superior Bishop Pompallier) was aware of the specific contents of the letter, but Wells leaves the matter painfully ambiguous. He says that Garavel “either wittingly or unwittingly” carried Tamihana’s incitement (p.85). On p.235 this becomes “either knowingly or unknowingly”. This is an odd statement from a writer who is elsewhere so ready to reach conclusions about people’s motives.
I would also express my dissent from Wells’ characterization of Pompallier as “in person profligate and seemingly dishonest” (p.236). At least I’m glad that Wells included that word “seemingly” there, but this judgement is still glib to say the least.
I must declare a personal interest at this point. Five years ago, I was commissioned to write a biographical history of the Catholic Diocese of Auckland, which was published under the title Founders and Keepers in 2011. I included a detailed and documented chapter on the changing reputation of the far-from-perfect Pompallier. I will say, however, that Wells’ attitude towards Pompallier and Catholic missionaries in general is far less negative than that of Paul Moon in his various writings. In fact, for all his sincere efforts to reach into the worldviews of all parties, there are times when Wells is equally dismissive of all Christian denominations in their endeavours. Repeatedly he uses the term “franchise” for each Christian denomination, as if he is naming nothing other than a set of commercial companies. This shows a certain failure of empathy when, as far as both Protestant and Catholic missionaries were concerned, they were engaged in life-and-death matters of profound spiritual importance.
In this connection I must arraign one dopey wisecrack by Wells when he is considering some of the evidence of Sister Aubert’s and Bishop Williams’ activities the night before Kereopa was hanged. He remarks:
 “they help us to plot the dance of the night, move by move, as Catholic sought to outwit Protestant and Protestant sought to outwit Catholic. And as Te Rau, too, used the competing religions to create a space for himself in which neither could actually ever completely reach him, appropriate him and hence claim him as – I am afraid I have to write this – a scalp.” (p.336).
Well actually no, Peter Wells, you do not have to write something so insufferably facetious and I don’t think you’re really “afraid” of having written it either. In fact, I suspect you think you have written a king-hit bon mot.
But here I admit that in all my misgivings over the last few paragraphs, I have been nitpicking.
Journey to a Hanging is an extraordinary book. Despite the few failures I’ve noted above, Wells’ sympathies are wide and he recreates a whole society vividly. How we conceive of the past is always changing. There is no “final” history. But in reading Journey to a Hanging I felt that the wheel had turned, and that we are at last moving on from the type of postcolonial history that overcompensated for earlier triumphalist colonial histories by equally un-nuanced imaginings of the past.
If this does not make it into the finals of New Zealand’s next round of book awards, then I will say that somebody goofed badly.

A Few Silly Footnotes:
I am interested to learn that Robert Maunsell, having translated the whole of the Old Testament into Maori, had to re-translate it all after his only draft of the translation was destroyed by fire (p.48). This puts me in mind of Thomas Carlyle’s heroic feat of re-writing, from memory, the first volume of his The French Revolution after the only manuscript copy of the volume was accidentally burnt by John Stuart Mill’s maid. Open fires were very destructive things in the nineteenth century.
If I were Peter Wells I’d have a quick word with my proof-reader or copy-editor. On p.293 he refers to a non-existent work called the “St. James Bible”. Obviously this is the King James Bible, and I have seen the mistake made by other hasty writers. However, it’s the type of thing that an alert copy-editor should pick up. Other than this, the production of Journey to a Hanging is excellent
HOWEVER, I would have preferred a full and conventional bibliography at the end, rather than only the source-giving endnotes.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

 “THE FRENCH REVOLUTION” by Thomas Carlyle (first published 1837; revised 1857)

            About twenty years ago I was an infrequent attender of “Slightly Foxed”, a pseudo-literary-cum-antiquarian club in Auckland, composed mainly of bibliophiles who wanted to talk about old books. Prior to one of our club meetings a topic was set – name your ten favourite books and explain why you like each. I sat down over a week and diligently produced a list of ten books, with a long explanatory note on each. I won’t annoy you by naming all the books I chose, for the simple reason that I no longer agree with all the choices I made, so much are one’s tastes modified by the years. Some that I chose (such as Don Quixote) I would still include if I were asked to make a similar list now. Others I regard almost with embarrassment. I am not embarrassed by having included Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution on my 20-year-old list, but it would no longer figure among my ten favourites. Re-reading passages from it before writing this article, I find Carlyle’s present-tense narration vigorous and dramatic up to a point, but quickly tiring, as if the man were incapable of writing in a more reflective, analytical, style. And while I could once have forgiven his views on the revolution as the product of Romanticism, I now find many of them unsympathetic, not to say sinister.
I can claim the feeblest and most notional of family connections with Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). As it happens, he was born in Ecclefechan, the same Scots Lowland town from which my mother’s family the Burnets had come to New Zealand in the late nineteenth century. As a child, I visited this unco dour Presbyterian town when my mother was in search of her ancestral connections, and saw the statue of Carlyle in the main street. Obviously that was the first I’d ever heard of the man. As an adult, I read The French Revolution in the old illustrated two-volume Collins Clear Type edition, running to a bit over 1,000 pages, which still sits on my shelf.
The story of the gestation of this book is well known. John Stuart Mill was commissioned to write a history of the French Revolution. He didn’t have time, so he passed the project on to Thomas Carlyle, who was then about forty. Carlyle worked away at it for about four years, eventually producing a three-volume work. But when he sent the only copy of the manuscript of the first volume to Mill for Mill’s comment, one of Mill’s servants accidentally burnt it. Carlyle re-wrote the volume from memory. This is one of the heroic stories of Eng Lit. Equally egregious, however, is that the type of “grand narrative” Carlyle produced is exactly the sort of thing that is now regarded with suspicion by academic historians. While teaching a paper on historiography five years back, I quickly found that Carlyle’s work, and his contemporary the American William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico and Peru, are now seen almost with contempt as Victorian bestsellers which tell vigorous stories but which are not to be trusted as history. And certainly The French Revolution has none of the scholarly apparatus that would now be essential in an academic work of history – no footnotes, endnotes, bibliography, naming and evaluation of sources etc. Just the sweeping narrative, where we have to trust that the author is not making it up.
Though first published in 1837, two years before Queen Victoria’s reign began, The French Revolution was indeed a Victorian bestseller and made Carlyle’s name with the public. Carlyle revised it in 1857 and it had a big impact on imaginative writers, most notably Charles Dickens, whose slant on the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities is very much indebted to Carlyle (as Dickens acknowledged). Also worth bearing in mind is how recent the French revolution was when Carlyle was writing. 1837 was a mere 42 years after the date (1795) where Carlyle chooses to end his history. It is as if we were to write about the 1970s.
As I now clearly see it, Carlyle was writing to a thesis. He was a big one for Capitalising Abstract Concepts, so his thesis about the French Revolution, as I understand it, goes like this:
Carlyle’s enemy was “Analysis”, meaning the querulous and endless chattering of intellectuals, to which he opposed “Belief”, meaning a core of unquestioned values, which he saw as necessary for a nation’s survival. But if Belief becomes routine or ritual, then it is a mere “Form” or Formula. To this Carlyle opposes Reality or Fact, the hard physical events of history. Thus his thousand-page history of the French Revolution reads as the Age of Analysis (philosophes, Voltaire, Montesquieu etc.) being swept away, the old Formulas (Catholic belief, absolute monarchy) crumbling, the terrible Facts marching through bloodily, leading to a new Belief, vital and real, which regenerates the nation.
 Carlyle despises the political bases of pre-revolutionary radicalism, and often refers scathingly to the “Evangel of Jean-Jacques [Rousseau]”, which he sees merely as a new Formula. He hates particularism, mammon, self-interest. The nation can’t be federal, can’t be money-mad and must have a common purpose. What he lauds is a sense of national purpose under strong leadership. This leads him to admire “men of destiny” (although he never actually uses that term) – those strong men who overrode what he sees as mere parliamentary squabbles and who took bold decisions at crucial points. King Louis XVI lacked decision before the new “Facts” of the Third Estate. In turn the Girondins, although the best and the brightest of France, failed because they continued to analyse and debate instead of recognising the “Fact” of Sansculottism and the force of radical Jacobinism (much as Carlyle hates Robespierre, the most prominent Jacobin). Carlyle hates Anarchy (also always capitalised), which he tends to equate with popular democracy. He laments eloquently the endless horrors and murders of the revolution. At his worst, he seems to admire most simple power and well-organised brute force.
Who emerges most sympathetically in his account? The general Dumouriez (for his decisiveness in battle); Danton (for his sense of Reality in rallying the nation against invasion), and, of course, Bonaparte. Carlyle’s history begins with the death of Louis XV in 1774 and ends with Bonaparte’s “whiff of grapeshot” in Vendemiaire, 1795. In effect, the whole revolution becomes a prologue to the emergence of the enlightened despot Napoleon.
This 19th century British “myth” of the revolution is quite different from the received 19th century French “myth” of the revolution as articulated by the republican democrat historian Jules Michelin. Michelin divided the revolution into an “heroic” early period of idealism and necessary reform (“l’epoque sainte”) and a “sombre” later period of violence and terror (“l’epoque sombre”) when the masses were forced to excesses by external dangers. This has tended to remain the standard French view (no matter how much it has been modified by Marxists, postmodernists and others). Recently, on the indispensible Youtube, I watched the two state-sponsored movies (each nearly three hours long), which French television broadcast in 1989 to mark the 200th anniversary of the revolution. They are divided into “Years of Hope” and “Years of Sorrow” in true Michelin style. Jean Renoir’s famous 1938 movie La Marseillaise, made in time for the 150th anniversary of the revolution, deals only with the early years of the revolution, and therefore sticks with the “years of hope” (one hostile reviewer said it made the revolution look like some sort of cheerful outdoors public demonstration). It too was a distant child of Michelin. On the other hand, there is also the persistent myth of Napoleon in France. Abel Gance’s epic silent film Napoleon, made in the 1920s, has scenes that could almost have been cribbed from Carlyle. One shows the young revolutionary general in his study, watching from his window a bloody riot in the street, looking at the copy of The Rights of Man and the Citizen hanging upon his wall, reflecting that this is what has led to such anarchy, and resolving to save the nation. Like Carlyle’s book, it is undiluted “Great Man” theory of history.
All of which has led to the most persistent criticism of Carlyle. By his “Great Man” theory and his contempt for popular democracy and his desire for a unified, ordered state, he is in effect a precursor of the Fascism of Right and Left. Flash forward a century and his satire on “Analysis” translates into Mussolini’s tirades against rotten liberal democracy; his man of destiny recognizing brute Facts and saving the nation is simply Hitler’s Fuhrerprinzip; his despotism of innate genius is Stalinists and Maoists seeing their Great Leader or Great Helmsman as the incarnation of the popular will. Add to this his lectures on Hero Worship and his admiring double-decker biography of Frederick the Great (read enthusiastically in Germany) and, much as it simplifies things a bit, the criticism seems to me a valid one
And did I mention the racial element of Carlyle’s The French Revolution? Racial assumptions run as an undertone through this long book, perhaps connected with Carlyle’s North European Protestant and Calvinist background. The impulsive “Gaelic” (i.e. Gallic or Gaulish) temperament is contrasted unfavourably with the “Frankish” and Germanic sense of stoicism, firmness, resolve and duty. In a way, Carlyle’s French revolution is the history of a disorderly and potentially anarchic “Gaelic” rabble awaiting “Frankish” discipline and leadership. Germanic courage is of course what he emphasises when he describes the massacre of the Swiss Guard.
            There are other blind spots in Carlyle’s vision. For all his stated theory, Carlyle’s sympathies are large and his feeling for common suffering is genuine (see particularly the chapter “Grilled Herrings” in the last Book). But when he considers pre-revolutionary France, what moves him most is not the misery of the people, but the “Sham”, the “Quacks”, the Formulas and the Analysis – in other words the lack of Belief and a vital force to unify the nation. His understanding of Catholicism is minimal – he sees and accounts for only the decadent aspects of the pre-revolutionary church, largely misses the regeneration of faith during [and after] the revolution, and seems convinced that the revolution has destroyed Catholicism. He pays little attention to rural France, or France outside Paris, except when giving evidence of the “Terror” there, and he does not really have the patience to analyse the political doctrines of the various parties. Debate in times of crisis is to him absurd. He also, especially in the earlier chapters, assumes the reader knows certain facts. For example, while he frequently refers to Cardinal Rohan as “Necklace-Rohan”, he never gives an account of the pre-revolutionary “Queen’s Necklace” scandal that might justify this sobriquet.
As the origin and foundation of the major “myth” of the French Revolution among English-speaking peoples, especially as reflected in popular novels, Carlyle’s book created durable, if highly questionable, portraits of the leading personalities. King Louis XVI is likeable but slow-witted – a devoted father but lacking resolve (this is one portrait that seems to square with later and more detailed historical research). Mirabeau is the great chimera and aristocratic factotum, mainly quack and charlatan, but at least recognising the great Fact of leadership. Danton is the “big” man, the true incarnation of the soul of Sansculottism and Patriotism. By contrast, Robespierre is spiteful, “small” and “sea-green” (Carlyle hammers both epithets to death). Incidentally, Carlyle accepts implicitly the idea that Robespierre attempted suicide just before his arrest, an idea which is now strongly contested by the evidence that his shattered jaw (at the time he was taken to the guillotine) was more likely inflicted by a shot fired by one of the arresting soldiers. Curiously, while his detestation of them is plain, Marat and Hebert are shadowy figures who play little part on Carlyle’s account – at least until the virginal heroine Charlotte Corday kills Marat.
            When he comes to the heroines of his story, Carlyle has that ecstatic worship of virgin purity and sacrifice characteristic of his age. In this manner, he treats the deaths of Marie-Antoinette, Charlotte Corday and Madame Roland almost as martyrdoms.
            How do I now assess this maddening and fascinating book? Much of it is airy, windy, repetitious, epithet-laden rhetoric. Certainly it can no longer be read as a serious history of classes and causes and economics and ideals. It is a panorama, a pageant, a series of dramatic scenes. Ralph Waldo Emerson was right to refer to it as a “poem”. Yet it does have a sense of vitality, of movement en masse. There is deep involvement in events rather than the detachment of a scholarly historian. At one and the same time we can say that this is and is not the way it happened, and yet it is the way it must have seemed to thousands of those who took part. Thus, paradoxically, it is a ‘true history’ – a history of feelings rather than of accurate facts.
What lingers in the mind are the individual dramatic episodes. When I first read the book, I listed the ones that most impressed me thus:
* The march of Parisian women to Versailles (Part I, Book VII)
* The “Feast of Pikes”, or first celebration of Bastille Day on the Champs de Mars, 1790, with its ludicrous portrait of Talleyrand having his mitre filled with rainwater (Part II, Book III)
* The royal family’s flight and capture at Varennes in 1791 (Part II, Book IV)
* The meeting and jibber-jabber of the inexperienced new Legislative Assembly in 1791-92 (Part II, Book V)
* The massacre of the Swiss Guard (Part II, Book VI)
* The sufferings and death in jails during the September Massacres of 1792 (Part III, Book I)
* The excesses of blasphemous “de-Christianisers”, especially in the chapter “Carmagnole Complete” (Part III, Book V)
* Danton’s execution (Part III, Book VI).
Carlyle’s account of the taking of the Bastille (Part I, Book V, Chapters 3-7) may be the most oft-quoted passage in the book, and is filled with phrases and allusions showing clearly where Dickens gained his inspiration for the parallel passage in A Tale of Two Cities. Oddly enough, though, this passage struck me as confused and over-written, lacking the narrative power of the other passages I have listed here.
I conclude by quoting the passage which I believe shows the best and the worst of Carlyle. It comes from Part II, Book III, Chapter 1 and concerns that first anniversary celebration of Bastille Day:
Alas, what offences must come. The sublime Feast of Pikes, with its effulgence of brotherly love, unknown since the Age of Gold, has changed nothing. That prurient heat in twenty-five millions of hearts is not cooled thereby; but is still hot, nay hotter. Lift off the pressure of command from so many millions; all pressure or binding rule except such melodramatic Federation Oath as they have bound themselves with! For Thou shalt was from of old the condition of man’s being, and his weal and blessedness was in obeying that. Woe for him when, were it on the heat of the clearest necessity, rebellion, disloyal isolation and mere I will becomes his rule!
Yes, Carlyle was quite right to see that good intentions and displays did not of themselves solve anything. Yes, his satire on talkers and planners is apt and funny. Yes, he perceived accurately that once a revolution had begun it could not be stopped by fine words. Yes, he noted correctly that a society needs binding values and there has to be more to it than atomised individual self-interest. But his craving for “command” led to an admiration of a new sort of tyranny, and in time it proved to be more terrible than the one the revolution had overthrown.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

I will make this comment brief, because it’s more in the nature of a reflection than a full-blown essay.
I am writing this after having watched both the two semi-finals and the final in FIFA’s World Cup. Germany defeated Brazil 7-1 in a game that was fast and humiliating for Brazil. The Netherlands and Argentina drew nil-all in a boring contest that was decided in a penalty shoot-out, which Argentina won. So Germany and Argentina faced off in the final. Mercifully, Germany won by the match's one goal near the end of extended play, so we were spared another penalty shoot-out. I felt very sorry for the great Argentinian striker Messi, who did his darndest. But the outcome makes no difference to my viewpoint.
I am not a great sports fan and never have been.
Even though I went to an all-male secondary school where rugby was the unofficial religion, and being a sportsman was the only way one could become a prefect, I managed to avoid completely ever taking part in any organised sport whatsoever. One day a year, the whole school had to participate in a “marathon”. My participation consisted of running for a couple of hundred yards and then walking the rest of the course in a leisurely fashion, coming back into the school gates (with about a quarter of the student body, I might add) an hour or so after the real runners had returned. My own extra-curricular activities at school consisted of acting and debating, and I was rewarded in my last year by getting the leading role in the school play.
I will be clearly understood here. I am not anti-sport. If people enjoy it, good for them. Nor am I allergic to exercise. I like taking long walks and, when I have the chance, I love bush tramping. But when, some years back, I realized that not only had I never played rugby, but that in my whole life I had never even watched a game of rugby in its entirety, I consciously decided to keep it that way.
Soccer, on the other hand, is a different matter. At least one of my sons was, and still occasionally is, a pretty good soccer player (or as we non-rugby people like to say, footballer). Some of my daughters played the game at junior level. And though I don’t go out of my way to watch soccer matches, I can be persuaded to go and watch a match if it’s likely to be a pleasant social occasion. And I always try to watch the World Cup final.
But there is the national chauvinist aspect in international sports contests, and this is my real theme for today’s sermon. I’ve said I’m not anti-sport, but I really am anti the nationalistic nonsense that goes with it, the assumption that sport is somehow tied to the destiny of a nation, or that in its international guise it is anything other than a business.
Let me give you a really crass example. In FIFA’s World Cup, Brazil and Germany have in recent years been the most conspicuous champions (Brazil seven times in the finals and five times the winner; Germany seven times in the finals and four times the winner). Italy is also one of the champions (four times winner, but two of those wins were way back in the 1930s). England and France languish some way down the list of the twelve nations that have made it into World Cup finals. France has twice been in the finals, but has only once won. England has only once been in the finals, and that was also the one and only time England won, nearly fifty years ago now, in 1966.
But how poisonous that national feeling becomes when it is related to sport. It really is a substitute for warfare.
Item – the English, who generally perform very badly at the World Cup (and whose club teams at home are largely made up of lavishly-paid Spaniards and Frenchmen and even Germans), have to have somebody to cheer for in the World Cup final, but this also means they have to have somebody to hate. So they have decided their sworn enemy is Germany and almost any other nation that meets Germany in a final will be the nation English football fans will cheer for.
My wife and I happened to be in London twelve years ago, at the time Germany and Brazil were the World Cup finalists. The tabloid newspapers were filled with anti-German bilge, including one which had a big front-page picture of the desired cup itself with the headline “Hans Off!” 
Such witticism. 
The afternoon of the match, my wife and I had been doing something totally non-sporty. We’d been at a matinee performance of a Shakespeare play (in fact a delightfully blood-thirsty condensation of the little-performed Henry VI plays). We came out into the pale London light to find the streets filled with Cockneys cheering and yipping and waving Brazilian colours because “their” team had won the World Cup. Cars drove up and down hooting their horns and waving Brazilian flags. It wasn’t as if English football fans have a particular love for Brazilians – it was just that any foreign team (except probably the French and Argentinians) could be the ersatz “English” team so long as it defeated the Germans.
I fail to see how this promotes international goodwill.
Of course, there are sports fans who can see through the nationalistic puffery and can admire sporting skill for its own sake.
My favourite moment of the three 2014 World Cup matches that I watched? It was during that dire semi-final when the German team methodically humiliated the Brazilian team. Before the match was over, there were close-ups of Brazilian fans staring in stunned astonishment or weeping in anguish. Many Brazilian fans left the stadium long before the match was over, knowing that their team had no hope of recovering.
But, to my delight, there were also shots of Brazilian fans applauding the German players for the sheer skill with which they scored their last two goals.
 I do wish all sports fans were like those ones.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Something New

“THE EMPEROR WALTZ” by Philip Hensher (4th Estate / Harper-Collins, $NZ44:99)

In 1914-15, the pioneer American film director D.W.Griffith made a film, The Birth of a Nation, which presented a contentious view of American history. It showed the South in the American Civil War being defeated by a rapacious North, it presented blacks as sub-human and it glorified the Ku Klux Klan in a manner that is widely believed to have revived that defunct terror group. Of course the film was controversial. Many cities banned it. Many local censorship boards demanded cuts. Race riots were feared.
In response, Griffith pleaded that people were being “intolerant” of his film, and wrote a pamphlet about the evils of censorship. He also, in the following year, 1916-17, made his epic film Intolerance, which told, intercut, four parallel stories supposed to represent intolerance through the ages – a story set in modern times, one set in ancient Babylon, one set at the time of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France, and one concerning the suffering and crucifixion of Christ. In each case, according to Griffith, “love” was being thwarted by mass prejudice and intolerance. The film was subtitled Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.
Now why on earth am I giving you this well-known film history lesson when I am supposed to be reviewing the Englishman Philip Hensher’s 613-page-long new novel The Emperor Waltz?
Quite simply because, once I cottoned on to the novel’s overall structure, I thought that Hensher was doing a Griffith, and I feared that the novel would be a polemical piece of special pleading.
Philip Hensher is an out and open gay, most of whose novels have dealt with explicitly gay themes (although the best of them that I have read – King of the Badgers – was more focused on the issue of public surveillance and the “watched society”). The Emperor Waltz tells a number of different stories, set in different eras. In the 1970s, a youngish man called Duncan, having inherited money off his unpleasant father, decides to set up of bookshop catering to gay tastes in a working class district of London. The locals are hostile. Sometimes bricks come smashing through the bookshop’s window. Later, police harass the owners of the bookshop by sending in plainclothes men to smell out smut and bring a prosecution for selling pornography. Meanwhile, in a story set in Weimar Germany in the 1920s, a young artist called Christian Vogt becomes part of the radical Bauhaus art movement.
Aha!” I thought smugly to myself, “soon we’re going to have Nazi stormtroopers marching into the novel and bashing up homosexuals.” I was assuming that Hensher was going to run his parallel stories as case studies in hostility towards gays, perhaps with the implicit message that anyone now who is uneasy about aspects of modern gay culture must be a closet Nazi.
But, dear reader, I underestimated Hensher. The fact is, his novel is far more subtle than this, and while there is the odd spot of polemic it is not always a work of preachiness.
Being a Germanophile, (as he has made clear in a number of his Guardian columns), Hensher must be aware of how ambiguous the relationship of Nazism to homosexuality was (given the huge homo-erotic appeal of Brownshirt units and the proclivities of some Nazi leaders, despite official persecution of homosexuals). There are a few passing references to homosexual characters in the Weimar sections of novel, and some indications of closeted homosexuals hiding who they really are, but the main characters being persecuted by German reaction are the avant-garde artists, whose chief representative in the novel is heterosexual. Hensher is not only enjoying himself with a critique of Bauhaus art (there are long sections contrasting the artists Paul Klee and Johannes Itten), but he is also suggesting that any radical and world-changing view will at first meet hostility. Bauhaus art then, gay liberation now (or at least in the 1970s and 1980s).
The modern and the 1920s sections take up most of the novel, but there are other historical stories told. Exactly halfway through the novel, one self-contained 40-page section concerns early Christians being persecuted in the reign of the emperor Diocletian. A pagan merchant’s daughter (later martyred and known as St. Perpetua) has the following conversation with her Christian slave:
 “ ‘I have talked much about my religion’, the slave said.
‘Oh, I won’t tell anyone’, the merchant’s daughter said. ‘But is it a secret sort of religion? In caves, in the desert, sacrificing babies to the gods, and it is death to speak of the mysteries?’
‘My religion is not like that,’ the slave said. ‘One day it will live openly and everyone will see everything about it. It is not a religion made for darkness.’
‘Why do you not live it openly now?’ the merchant’s daughter said, but the slave had nothing but a gesture of the hands in response to that. ‘I can see, you would be killed if you did. But you don’t seem to mind being killed in the name of your religion…’ ” (p.318)
I think Hensher’s parallel here is fairly obvious. Early Christianity, like Bauhaus art and gay liberation, was once a movement of the powerless that upset established power structures and provoked a hostile reaction. The Christian slave’s words that her movement will ‘one day … live openly and everyone will see everything about it. It is not … made for darkness’ could really be the epigraph to the whole novel.
At this point we could, of course, ask some hard questions about whether early Christianity, Bauhaus art and modern gay-dom are really comparable. To some extent, Hensher’s structural parallels force the issue.
There are also two sections whose place in the novel is a little murky.
Thirty pages (given the heading “Next Year”) are a scene of obnoxious young middle-class teenagers taking drugs and watching their father’s stash of pornography when they are supposed to be looking after a younger child. I’m not sure what Hensher’s purpose is in including this, except perhaps to show the iniquities of apparently respectable middle-class heterosexual families. Or to show all the wrong ways in which teenagers might be introduced to homosexuality, as they snigger over anal sex.
Far more intriguing – and the part of the novel I found most engaging – is the forty-page section headed “Last Month”. Unlike the rest of the novel, it is told in the first person by a character identified (on p.376) as “Phil”, so it appears to be direct autobiography on Philip Hensher’s part. Phil lies in a hospital bed. He is there for a minor operation. He has to co-exist with people he does not really like (including especially one disgusting and malodorous tramp), but he uses his skills in reading character to get onside with the supervising nurse and thus to get himself moved to a bed with a window view. As I took in this minutely observed episode, I couldn’t help thinking how well it read as an autonomous short story. Where it fits thematically into the rest of the novel I can only guess. Is Hensher’s point that human survival often has to mean peaceful co-existence with people we can’t stand? Or that the skills that go into reading character accurately can also be used to manipulate others?
Having noted these other sections, however, it remains true that the novel’s major preoccupations are with 1920s Germany and with modern homosexuals.
Hensher never falls into the trap of presenting his gay characters as uniformly likeable people. There are some who are satirised or presented in negative terms. One gay character talks arrant nonsense such as “Promiscuity is a radical critique of heteronormative structures that keep everyone in this society in place”. (pp.437-438). As a mature gay man, Hensher adopts a coolly ironical attitude towards this character, perhaps a bit like a feminist who knows that the rhetoric has changed and who now regards with some embarrassment the days of bra-burning. In the Weimar sections, a homosexual couple who talk of “having sodomy” in the interests of “hygiene” are essentially ridiculed. Hensher seems especially hostile to those who attempt to link gayness with left-wing political causes. Again in the Weimar section, leftist people who talk bloody revolution are really depicted as being on the same wavelength as thuggish beer-swilling Brownshirts. In the “modern” section, one tiresome gay politico, who wants to use the gay bookshop for meetings discussing Trotsky, is finally kicked out by other gay men who see him as a dishonest and irritating irrelevance (pp.482-485).
Hensher is on record complaining about left-wing parties which pander to working class prejudices against gays. He is also on record as noting how much more welcoming the English Conservative Party has been to gays than the Labour Party has been, and how large a fan base Margaret Thatcher had among gay men. This brings me very much to the conclusion that, while I heard one radio reviewer laud this novel for being about the power of “outsiders”, it is really showing outsiders craving to be insiders – wielding power and fully accepted by society at large. The trajectory of the “modern” sections of the story is towards a character’s belief (pp.508-509) that the gay bookshop has become redundant because the type of wares it sells are now sold openly in mainstream bookshops anyway.
Why the novel is called The Emperor Waltz is another of those things that readers will have to puzzle out. Strauss’s stately and melodious old dance tune is referenced in most of the novel’s different sections (apart, obviously, from the one set in early Christian days). It is one of the novel’s many verbal links: a rather artificial way of binding diverse materials together – like having persecuted Christians in one section and then calling the main character of another section “Christian”. Hensher equates the tune with happiness, but perhaps also with the inevitable march of history and change. And any number of other things.
How do I personally rate this novel? There are spots of badly self-expository dialogue, as when Duncan spills out hatred for his dying father as he neatly explains how his father mistreated his sister:
I remember. Even in the 1950s, you didn’t just throw small children into the deep end of swimming pools and wait to see if they drowned or not…. Every week… making her walk all the way back to school in the dark of January to make her find a pencil case she had dropped. Do you know, you’ve never once given me any help or advice – you’ve never done anything for me, except once. Mummy made you explain to me how to shave. You couldn’t get out of that. That was it. I’m glad you’re dying.” (pp.110-111) Etc. Etc.
The episodes where a team of enthusiasts set up the gay bookshop, and later where a party is being held to raise funds to fight the police prosecution, have the naïve jolly-hockey-sticks tone of old tales about a bunch of kids putting on a show in the local barn. To give a literary comparison, they reminded me of nothing so much as the assembling of the Dinky-Doo concert party in J.B.Priestley’s The Good Companions. Such enthusiasm. Such simple-mindedness.
On the other hand, the novel is packed densely with interesting detail and is the product of an erudite man who does not want to inhabit a ghetto. While you are reading it, it engages attention. But the artificiality of its central conceit means that the effect quickly wears off.

Pedantic footnotes: As one might expect from this author, there are a number of in-jokes in The Emperor Waltz, and many points at which cultural references are left unexplained so that the literati can have the pleasure of picking them up for themselves. Some historical characters have major roles (such as Paul Klee and Saint Perpetua). Others drop fleetingly into the narrative (such as the novelist Angus Wilson being all campy at the gay bookshop’s fund-raising party). Then there is the totally fictitious character who is dying of AIDS, but who is so in the closet that he pretends he is dying of a “rare Chinese bone disease”. Those in the know will recognise here a reference to a well-known travel writer. A number of times, there are references to meat-eating characters enjoying the “inner organs” of animals, which can only be an echo of a famous passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses.  And when, late in the novel, somebody writes of an aeronautical engineer called Norway, we are not told that this was the chap who wrote a string of pop novels under the pseudonym Nevil Shute. And so on and so on.