Sunshine Recorder

Link: Sleep Well My Love

The following heart-rending love letter was written by American World War II veteran Brian Keith to Dave, a fellow soldier he met and fell in love with in 1943 while stationed in North Africa. It was penned on the occasion of their anniversary and reprinted in September of 1961 by ONE Magazine, a groundbreaking pro-gay magazine first published in 1953. The original letter is held, I am told, by the Library of Congress.

Dear Dave,

This is in memory of an anniversary — the anniversary of October 27th, 1943, when I first heard you singing in North Africa. That song brings memories of the happiest times I’ve ever known. Memories of a GI show troop — curtains made from barrage balloons — spotlights made from cocoa cans — rehearsals that ran late into the evenings — and a handsome boy with a wonderful tenor voice. Opening night at a theatre in Canastel — perhaps a bit too much muscatel, and someone who understood. Exciting days playing in the beautiful and stately Municipal Opera House in Oran — a misunderstanding — an understanding in the wings just before opening chorus.

Drinks at “Coq d’or” — dinner at the “Auberge” — a ring and promise given. The show 1st Armoured — muscatel, scotch, wine — someone who had to be carried from the truck and put to bed in his tent. A night of pouring rain and two very soaked GIs beneath a solitary tree on an African plain. A borrowed French convertible — a warm sulphur spring, the cool Mediterranean, and a picnic of “rations” and hot cokes. Two lieutenants who were smart enough to know the score, but not smart enough to realize that we wanted to be alone. A screwball piano player — competition — miserable days and lonely nights. The cold, windy night we crawled through the window of a GI theatre and fell asleep on a cot backstage, locked in each other’s arms — the shock when we awoke and realized that miraculously we hadn’t been discovered. A fast drive to a cliff above the sea — pictures taken, and a stop amid the purple grapes and cool leaves of a vineyard.

The happiness when told we were going home — and the misery when we learned that we would not be going together. Fond goodbyes on a secluded beach beneath the star-studded velvet of an African night, and the tears that would not be stopped as I stood atop the sea-wall and watched your convoy disappear over the horizon.

We vowed we’d be together again “back home,” but fate knew better — you never got there. And so, Dave, I hope that where ever you are these memories are as precious to you as they are to me.

Goodnight, sleep well my love.

Brian Keith

Link: Dead Can Dance

Why do we care about the dead? And what does this care keep alive in us? University of California,  Berkeley, historian Thomas Laqueur is working through these questions, focusing on the history of European death cultures. Sprawling and ambitious in scope, his forthcoming book traces the different ways that the dead are put to work to help structure living societies.

The Work of the Dead tells the story of how Europe’s deceased traveled from the churchyard to the out-of-town cemetery via images of colonial power and national unity, and the new uses they were put to in the process. The project gathers a vast quantity of material on the praxis of death, from archaeological evidence of prehistoric burial rites to the modern practice of cremation. This wealth of detail evokes not only the specific individual necessity of mourning—of figuring out what we have lost when we lose someone important to us and how this importance can persist without the presence of its object—but the larger social task of creating histories, genealogies, and stories that organize our relations to one another. In Laqueur’s account, the social as such starts to look like a vast work of mourning. Or maybe it’s better to say that mourning looks like the starting point of the social. Animals know death too, but they don’t make such a habit of it.

His previous books include Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990) and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (2003). Like these books, The Work of the Dead investigates the troubled line between nature and culture, and the manifold means by which broadly consistent physical facts become widely differing social realities.

In an interview, we talked about war memorials, Marx’s tomb, the names of the dead, and imperialist fantasies of murdering ghosts.

Can you give me a brief summary of the book you’re working on now?

The project I’m working on is called The Work of the Dead: Oblivion and Memory in Western Culture. I actually believe it to be broader than Western culture, but I want to be modest. The question I ask is, Why is it that we care for the dead body? We know that the dead body itself is just part of nature, that life has gone from it. But there’s a very long history going back to Paleolithic times of caring for the dead body, and people do it irrespective of what they believe about it. Socialists do it, Christians do it, Buddhists who believe that the body is irrelevant to the self do it. I’m interested in that puzzle.

Secondly, I’m interested in why we do it in practical ways: how dead bodies mark out borders and civilizations, how they seem to collect nations together. In other words, I want to argue that the living need the dead more than the dead need the living. The dead do all sorts of things for us.

I try to look at this in deep time, and I trace it through Christian traditions. I look at the 18th through the 20th centuries: how we find new places for the dead, how the cemetery replaces the churchyard, why, and how the cemetery is different from the churchyard. I explore why in the middle of the 19th century we start cremating people in these high-tech steel ovens that are borrowed from steelmaking technology, and what that means.

Lastly, I’m interested in the question of why, after so many centuries, millennia, of caring relatively little about the names of the dead, we’ve become so concerned about collecting them and marking landscapes with names, and putting names on memorials, and in general how we’ve come to think that every dead person has a name. Those are the big themes that I deal with.

In your book Making Sex, you insist on the idea that the body is culturally produced. You have a really nice phrase about how even though there is a body outside culture, we can access it only through culture. It seems that in relation to the dead, you can’t make that strong a claim. In some senses the biology of death—that bodies stop breathing, stop thinking, stop walking around—is absolute, and that’s an unassimilable fact that operates transculturally and transhistorically.

Sex operates like that too. Transhistorically, species that reproduce bisexually have two different sexes. So that’s the issue, how one understands and assimilates that fact into culture.

We know that Neanderthals buried, we know that some humans in the Paleolithic 25,000, 30,000 years ago buried. And as far as we have a record into the Upper Neolithic, very early settlements 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, people took care of the dead. So care of the dead is this moment in which the biological fact of death enters culture. Caring for the dead is like the incest taboo: It’s this moment, speaking theoretically, in which we move from nature into culture.

We care for the dead for all sorts of reasons, and each culture has made up many different reasons why it’s important. The dead are scary; the dead are scary for many reasons. The dead might be helped by the living and the living might be helped by the dead. The ultimate fact is that we care for the dead, and then we make up a bunch of reasons to justify that.

What strikes me as interesting is that we create communities with dead people that represent our communities, even though we know that what we’re burying is indistinguishable from anything else—the dead body of our friend is no different from the dead body of our enemy. But we believe it to be the dead body of a friend, and we invest meaning in that. We take nature, which is the dead body, and bring it into culture. That’s a very remarkable thing.

There are a bunch of tombs around Marx’s grave, and if an anthropologist were to dig it up a thousand years from now, they would think it looked exactly like a Sufi tomb, or a Catholic tomb, or a Hasidic tomb. Because somehow these dead materialist communists believe that their ashes produce a community with Karl Marx, even though their whole life philosophy suggests that’s rubbish. It’s not even his body in Highgate; it’s his ashes. But there’s a great Marx tomb that looks like there’s a body in it. There’s something equivalent in how we make gender out of sex. Everyone’s ashes are chemically indistinguishable, and yet ashes can make a community. If you were to say, okay, Marx’s ashes are there just to make a memorial, I would say that’s true, but it wouldn’t work without a body. If it were just a plaque with a name on it, it wouldn’t work. It’s similar to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; if you thought the body weren’t there, it wouldn’t work.

Even for people who explicitly believe that in death there’s nothing of the person left—for example, Marx was an Epicurean, and he thought that the atoms of your body returned to nature—the dead body matters. Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband writes very eloquently about what her dead body means to him. He says that, like her eyeglasses and her books are dear to him, all the more so her body, although he knows that she’s not in her body.

I was really interested in your description of cemeteries and how heavily they draw on a mishmash of ancient Egyptian architecture and other kinds. You also relate it to the colonial development of racial and national categories. Could you say more about how those things appear in these ornate cemeteries?

Before the Enlightenment, the only place you could get buried without ignominy was the churchyard. With the development of the cemetery, the dead make new kinds of communities.

In churchyards, the graves were all oriented east-west. In the English churchyard, there’s a particular botany: The yew tree is the tree of the churchyard. There’s only one kind of person in the churchyard: a Christian. There’s no private property in the churchyard, everything belongs to the community. Every monument has to have the approval of the parish priest, so you can’t build what you want there. The churchyard is a communal space, and it’s a space that belongs to the parish. Others can come in, but only by paying extra.

The cemetery is a place where (in theory) anyone can buy property, and you can lie next to anyone, and you can be buried in any direction you want to be buried. You can write anything you want on the tombstone. You can be any religion. If you’re Jewish, some rabbis might not be willing to bury you, but some rabbis would. It’s an open space, and people built according to the sensibilities of the day. Just like you can choose clothes that are slightly retro, the large cemeteries provided big tombs and they provided graves that looked like Egyptian tombs and Roman-style plinths, and you could present yourself in whatever way you wanted. The colonial cemetery in Calcutta looks like an imperial cemetery, it doesn’t look like a churchyard.

In Europe, every nation starts by producing national cemeteries. The first thing the Czechs do is produce a national cemetery. So the dead can produce all kinds of communities.

Race itself seems to have something to do with a long history of the dead.

In America there are segregated cemeteries, but it’s also the case with religious difference. In Northern Ireland, the Belfast cemetery has a Protestant and a Catholic section and it has a six-foot underground wall, so the purity of the Catholics and the purity of the Protestants won’t be violated. Communities of race and communities of servitude produce their own burial places.

The work of the dead is an immense feat of the human imagination. Not even the craziest 19th century racist argues that the actual bones of a dead black person are any different than the bones of a white person, and yet they won’t be buried next to each other. The dead are so crucial to making communities because they become paths to connect to the past. There was terrible uproar in Spain because the right wing has exhumed the bodies of Republicans and put them in the Franco memorial, which is seen as a monument to fascism. Yet the bodies don’t know the difference—they’re the same as the fascist bodies. Lorca has a wonderful line: “Nowhere are the dead more alive than Spain.” I don’t know if that’s especially true in Spain, but everywhere the dead are alive. We believe the dead to be alive whether we believe them to be ghosts or spirits or inhabit an afterlife. It’s immaterial whether or not we believe the dead are somewhere else—we take dead bodies to represent the dead and to matter and to be alive. A huge amount of life and culture is made manifest in the dead body.

We even believe the names to be alive. At the Vietnam Memorial people leave cigarettes and beer at the name of someone they loved. Even though if you actually asked them, do you actually believe in grave goods? Do you believe that there’s a ghost that will drink the beer? None of that. There’s no checklist of beliefs. But the name represents some version of the immortality or the presence of the person.

Is it a peculiarity of capitalist or white bourgeois society that it doesn’t specify any particular relation to the dead? Like you said about the people who leave beer at the Vietnam memorial, there’s no metaphysics that substantiates why they do it. That seems like a weird thing about modernity.

There aren’t many cultures that have a more engaged relation to the dead than the high capitalist or Victorian age. I think that now people are immensely engaged with the dead. There are endless battles about where someone can be buried. “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev can’t be in my cemetery.” Or people ingest ashes of their loved ones or get tattoos with ink made from the ashes of their loved ones. There are endless stories.

I think the bourgeoisie is if anything more actively engaged with the dead, though it’s hard to quantify. I certainly don’t believe that we’re not engaged with the dead. If you think of the dead of conflict, of the Holocaust, of war—they are crucial in our culture. In the high era of imperialist capitalism, the Unknown Warrior becomes a shrine in every European country. And there’s no theology that justifies it.

I would say in some sense that bourgeois culture is more engaged with the dead than before because it’s a way to deal with the anxiety of “all that’s solid melts into the air.” It doesn’t melt into air—it stops with the dead. Many bourgeois conventions, rituals, and gestures are to make it stop. I don’t believe the line that we ever stopped making the dead central in all sorts of cultures.

As you get more and more violent mass death, with colonialism and the wars of the 20th century, I was thinking about how unbearable it would be for the agents of this colonial culture to have the dead as this malevolent force. What if we did believe that the dead who died badly had some kind of presence? Of course symbolically the dead are very active, but we don’t really believe that the ghosts of people who died in concentration camps are haunting Angela Merkel. But we could. I was thinking about how the refusal of ­certain forms of death is also a convenient refusal of certain forms of guilt.

How long have ghosts ever haunted anyone? Ghosts haunt historically for relatively short amounts of time. People complained about the Holocaust memorial in Berlin exactly because you don’t want the ghosts of the Holocaust dead in the middle of the city. I think the ghosts of the Holocaust have survived for longer in Germany than ghosts of previous injustices have survived anywhere else.

The colonial issue is another one. The unjustly dead of the British have not survived. That’s an interesting question, and I think it has to do with an idea of colonial power. You can kill the ghosts—that’s the imperialist fantasy. The Roman idea that you could actually kill everyone in Jerusalem or Carthage and that would be the end of them. They would not come back. That is the fantasy of colonial power, and it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

Is there a relation between death and gender?

I wanted to say at first, my book is mostly about men. Because of patriarchy, civilization is carried through men, and there’s less care for the dead women. But I think the truth of the matter is that it varies enormously from culture to culture and situation to situation. Sometimes archaeologically they find fewer women’s graves, because there are fewer women, like in the frontier societies of the Vikings. Sometimes there are equal numbers of women and women are cared for just as much as men.

I think that many public monuments and public presentations of the dead are about men because men die in war, and many of the great monuments to the dead are created in war. And “great men” have to be men, in patriarchal societies. But is there a dramatic difference in care of the dead by gender? Probably not. But that’s a hard thing to nail down. You can’t make the blanket statement that women’s bodies are less cared for in death, in general. The experts on the deep history of the dead aren’t clear on this. 

The masculine/feminine binary relates women to birth, death and this murky substrate, more associated with nature—and you talked about the dead body returning to nature. What do you think about that possible connection between women and death?

Mourners tend to be women, and you could argue that this is symbolically because women bring life into the world. In Jewish culture and in many other cultures, the dead body and menstrual blood are part of the same pollution system. In my work, I’ve tended to not deal with this so much because I don’t think it has a history and I don’t think it has a way to be empirically studied. What my work does is to say, look, there’s a universal history of the dead, but how we care for the dead in particular places is a consequence of particular social and cultural situations, not of theology, and not of ideology. The dead make communities, the dead work for the living. Sometimes it’s the bodies of dead women, sometimes of dead men, and sometimes it’s indifferent.

How does all this relate to either the personal experience of bereavement as an absolute loss, or our own awareness that we ourselves are going to die one day?

The whole notion is that we care for the dead body because the dead body of a friend or a loved one is significant, even though we know they are gone. In mourning, there are different stages. The body or some version of the body, or some sense that the body is somewhere, is crucial to mourning, both in the acute stages of acute loss and in the long stages of maintaining family connections and genealogy.

At some point, the dead will fade away—probably within decades. But yes, it’s about mourning. It’s about acute mourning or longer mourning. Whether you put the ashes in a river, whether you put the ashes in a burial place, or where you put the body, is crucial to mourning.

While the dead are gone, they’re not gone. While the dead don’t speak, they speak. St. Paul said that and we can say it now: The dead don’t speak and yet we hear them speak. We hear them speak in St. Paul, we hear them speak in the poetry of Thomas Hardy. They speak, and they chastise us and they say loving things to us, they say all sorts of things to us. And they say it from where the body is, usually. So everyone in mourning believes their dead aren’t gone, they’re somewhere, and they’re something. That’s why the whole thing works. A dog doesn’t have a sense that a dead dog is anywhere, but humans believe that the dead are somewhere.

But animals can mourn, dogs can mourn. People have seen elephants mourning.

It’s very brief. It’s not over the long term. Humans are the only creatures who produce culture around the dead.

Link: Me, Myself, and I

1. Two years ago, when I was chairing a large Harvard undergraduate program called History and Literature, I had what seemed to me at the time a bright idea. We had a regular forum in which we scheduled lectures by distinguished visiting scholars whose work boldly crossed disciplinary boundaries. I would invite my friend and former Berkeley colleague Thomas Laqueur, who was, I knew, working on an ambitious new book that brought together the history of medicine with cultural history, psychology, theology, and literature.

It wasn’t only a question of friendship; Laqueur’s celebrated 1990 book, Making Sex—on the medical discovery or invention of sexual difference—had a significant impact on a wide range of fields, from the history of science to gender studies, from literary criticism to art history. Discovery or invention: the shared understanding of the difference between men and women was transformed, Laqueur argued, less because of empirical discoveries than because of a complex social reevaluation. His book showed that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries people gradually shifted from a one-sex model—in which the woman’s body was viewed as a providentially inferior version of the man’s—to a two-sex model, in which the organs of generation were understood to be quite distinct. That is, they gave up the ancient idea that the vagina was in effect an unborn penis and grasped that what they had thought were the woman’s undescended testicles were in fact something quite different, something they called ovaries. In literary terms they moved in effect from Shakespeare’s plucky boyish heroines—Rosalind or Viola—toward Dickens’s strange angelic creatures—Agnes Wicklow or Little Dorrit—who seem to be made of different stuff from the men or to have grown up on a different planet or, more precisely, to have different insides.

Laqueur’s most recent book, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, shares with Making Sex the same startling initial premise: that something we take for granted, something that goes without saying, something that simply seems part of being human has in fact a history, and a fascinating, conflicted, momentous history at that. Small wonder then that he seemed a person whose writings and lecture would enliven the semester for the undergraduates in History and Literature. In fact he did enliven the semester, but a strange thing happened along the way: there was a tremendous outbreak of the jitters. Panic set in not among the students—a large number of whom must have come of age watching There’s Something About Mary—but among the core of instructors who lead the seminars and conduct the tutorials. Though sophisticated and highly trained, when they were faced with the prospect of discussing the history of masturbation with the students, many of them blanched. Coprophagia wouldn’t have fazed them at all, sodomy wouldn’t have slowed them down, incest would have actively interested them—but masturbation: please, anything but that.

After a flurry of anxious conversations, I called a staff meeting to discuss the Great Masturbation Crisis. The first thing that I noticed was that everyone had developed overnight an intense sensitivity to double-entendres, as if language itself had become feverish. “When is Laqueur coming?” (chuckles). “His visit raises a number of issues” (giggles). “What do we hope will emerge from this discussion?” (snorts). “I am sorry if his visit rubs some people the wrong way” (loud guffaws). Perhaps in response to this burst of silliness, an experienced and ordinarily quite sensible instructor got up and made an urgent speech. “I have taught sexually charged subjects before,” she said gravely, “and there is one thing that I believe is absolutely crucial: there must be no humor at all. Once you allow the students to laugh, it is all over.”

Given the fact that the subject of masturbation tends to awaken laughter, this was awkward enough, but more awkward was the response of another instructor: it was, he declared, against his conscience to assign students readings from Laqueur’s new book or to require them to attend the lecture. It wasn’t, he conceded, that the subject—the relationship between the medicalization of human behavior and the imagination—was unimportant, but it should only be discussed in what he chose to call “a non-coercive framework.” In this it was different from virtually every other subject that we might assign. Wishing not to violate his conscience, I excused him from the task and told him that, should any students (to whom I would give the option) share his feelings, he could teach them chapters from Laqueur’s fine early book on Victorian Sunday schools and working-class culture. In the event, none of the students chose this option.

Finally, I had a phone call from a giggling Newsweek reporter who told me that she had gotten word of the forthcoming lecture. “Great,” I said, “I would love you to write about the whole series of lectures that History and Literature had scheduled this year.” No, no, she replied, she was only interested in this one. I understand now, I said with defensive coolness, you have a special interest in eighteenth-century nosology—the scientific classification of diseases. She sounded disappointed, and the magazine contented itself with a brief mention that the “modern master of masturbation” had come to talk at Harvard.

I now fully grasped that Laqueur was on to something both weird and important. How could I not have anticipated it? Had I not read Portnoy’s Complaint or watched Seinfeld? During the last administration, the surgeon general, Jocelyn Elders, was fired, or so it was claimed, for her apparent endorsement of the public health values of masturbation. At a Miami news conference, President Bill Clinton said that her views on the subject reflected “differences with administration policy and my own convictions.” Masturbation is virtually unique, in the array of more or less universal human behaviors, in arousing a peculiar and peculiarly intense current of anxiety.

This anxiety, Laqueur observes, is not found in all cultures and is not part of our own culture’s distant origins. In ancient Greece and Rome, masturbation could be the object of transitory embarrassment or mockery, but it had little or no medical or, as far as we can tell, cultural significance. More surprisingly, Laqueur argues, it is almost impossible to find in ancient Jewish thought. This claim at first seems dubious because in Genesis 38 we read that Onan “spilled his seed upon the ground,” an act that so displeased the Lord that He struck him dead. Onanism indeed became a synonym for masturbation, but not for the rabbis who produced the Talmuds and midrashim. For them the sin of Onan was not masturbation but a willful refusal to procreate. Their conceptual categories—procreation, idolatry, pollution—evidently did not include a significant place for the sinful indulgence in gratuitous, self-generated sexual pleasure. Some commentators on a pronouncement by Rabbi Eliezer—“Any- one who holds his penis when he urinates is as though he brought the flood into the world”—seem close to condemning such pleasure, but on closer inspection these commentators too are concerned with the wasting of semen.

Medieval Christian theologians, by contrast, did have a clear concept of masturbation as a sin, but it was not, Laqueur claims, a sin in which they had particularly intense interest. With the exception of the fifth-century abbot John Cassian, they were far more concerned with what Laqueur calls the ethics of social sexuality than they were with the ethics of solitary sex. What mattered most were “perversions of sexuality as perversions of social life, not as a withdrawal into asocial autarky.” Within the monastery anxiety focused far more on sodomy than on masturbation, while in the world at large it focused more on incest, bestiality, fornication, and adultery.

When theologians commented on Genesis 38 at all, it was to condemn Onan not for what he did but for what he refused to do: thus Saint Augustine interpreted Onan as the sort of person who fails to do what he can to help those in need. As befits a religion that rejected the strict rabbinic obligation to procreate and instead celebrated monastic chastity, the argument here has slipped away from the obligation to be fruitful and multiply and changed into a more general moral obligation. Church fathers could not share in particularly intense form the Jewish anxiety about Onan, precisely because the Church most honored those whose piety led them to escape from the whole cycle of sexual intercourse and generation. Theologians did not permit masturbation, but they did not focus sharply upon it, for sexuality itself, and not only nonreproductive sexuality, was to be overcome. A very severe moralist, Raymond of Peñafort, did warn married men against touching themselves, but only because arousal might make them want to copulate more often with their wives. It may be better to marry than to burn, but that sort of thing should be kept to a minimum. Only one early-fifteenth-century text—a three-page manual “On the Confession of Masturbation,” attributed to the chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean de Gerson—instructed priests on how to elicit confessions of this sin, and this text does not seem to have circulated widely.

2. Reformation theologians did not fundamentally alter the traditional conception of masturbation or significantly intensify the level of interest in it. To be sure, Protestants vehemently castigated Catholics for creating institutions—monasteries and convents—that in their view denigrated marriage and inevitably fostered masturbation. Marriage, the Reformers preached, was not a disappointing second choice made by those who could not embrace the higher goal of chastity; it was the fulfillment of human and divine love. Sexual pleasure in marriage, provided that it was not excessive or pursued for its own sake, was not inherently sinful, or rather any taint of sinfulness was expunged by the divinely sanctioned goal of procreation. In the wake of Luther and Calvin masturbation remained what it had been for the rabbis: an act whose sinfulness lay in the refusal of procreation, the prodigal wasting of seed.

In one of his early sonnets, Shakespeare wittily turns such “unthrifty” wasting into economic malpractice:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?

In bequeathing the young man such loveliness, nature expected him to pass it along to the next generation; instead the “beauteous niggard” is holding on to it for himself and refusing to create the child who should rightly bear his image into the future. Masturbation, in the sonnet, is the perverse misuse of an inheritance. The young man merely spends upon himself, and thereby throws away, wealth that should rightly generate more wealth:

For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone:
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?

Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,

Which usèd, lives th’executor to be.

The young man, as the sonnet characterizes him, is a “profitless usurer,” and when his final reckoning is made, he will be found in arrears. The economic metaphors here have the odd effect of praising usury, still at the time regarded both as a sin and as a crime. There may be an autobiographical element here—the author of The Merchant of Venice was himself on occasion a usurer, as was his father—but Shakespeare was also anticipating a recurrent theme in the history of “modern masturbation” that concerns Laqueur: from the eighteenth century onward, masturbation is assailed as an abuse of biological and social economy. Still, a poem like Shakespeare’s only shows that masturbation in the full modern sense did not yet exist: by “having traffic” with himself alone, the young man is wasting his seed, but the act itself is not destroying his health or infecting the whole social order.

The Renaissance provides a few glimpses of masturbation that focus on pleasure rather than the avoidance of procreation. In the 1590s Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Nashe wrote a poem about a young man who went to visit his girlfriend who was lodging—just for the sake of convenience, she assured him—in a whorehouse. The man was so aroused by the very sight of her that he had the misfortune of prematurely ejaculating, but the obliging lady managed to awaken him again. Not, however, long enough for her own satisfaction: to his chagrin, the lady only managed to achieve her “solace” by means of a dildo which, she declared, was far more reliable than any man. This piece of social comedy is closer to what Laqueur would consider authentic “modern” masturbation, for Nashe’s focus is the pursuit of pleasure rather than the wasting of seed, but it is still not quite there.

Laqueur’s point is not that men and women did not masturbate throughout antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance—the brief confessional manual attributed to Gerson assumes that the practice is ubiquitous, and the historian finds no reason to doubt it—but rather that it was not regarded as a deeply significant event. It is simply too infrequently mentioned to have counted for a great deal, and the few mentions that surface tend to confirm its relative unimportance. Thus in his diary, alongside the many occasions on which he had a partner in pleasure, Samuel Pepys jotted down moments in which he enjoyed solitary sex, but these latter did not provoke in him any particular shame or self-reproach. On the contrary, he felt a sense of personal triumph when he managed, while being ferried in a boat up the Thames, to bring himself to an orgasm—to have “had it complete,” as he put it—by the strength of his imagination alone. Without using his hands, he noted proudly, he had managed just by thinking about a girl he had seen that day to pass a “trial of my strength of fancy…. So to my office and wrote letters.” Only on such solemn occasions as High Mass on Christmas Eve in 1666, when the sight of the queen and her ladies led him to masturbate in church, did Pepys’s conscience speak out, and only in a very still, small voice.

The seismic shift came about some half-century later, and then not because masturbation was finally understood as a horrible sin or an economic crime but rather because it was classified for the first time as a serious disease. “Modern masturbation,” Solitary Sex begins, “can be dated with a precision rare in cultural history.” It came into being “in or around 1712” with the publication in London of a short tract with a very long title: Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES Considered, with Spiritual and Physical Advice to those who have already injured themselves by this abominable practice. And seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the nation of Both SEXES…. The anonymous author—Laqueur identifies him as John Marten, a quack surgeon who had published other works of soft-core medical pornography—announced that he had providentially met a pious physician who had found remedies for this hitherto incurable disease. The remedies are expensive, but given the seriousness of the condition, they are worth every penny. Readers are advised to ask for them by name: the “Strengthening Tincture” and the “Prolific Powder.”

It all began here, Laqueur argues. The question, of course, is why this shameless piece of mercenary quackery, instead of being thrown in the rubbish where it belonged, should have served as the foundation stone of a serious medical tradition that transformed cultural assumptions that had been securely in place for thousands of years. In part the answer was a clever marketing trick: subsequent editions, and they were many, included titillating letters from readers who breathlessly disclosed their own personal initiation into masturbatory addiction and testified to the liberating power of the patent medicines. But marketing alone cannot explain why “onanism” and related terms began to show up in the great eighteenth-century encyclopedias or why one of the most influential physicians in France, the celebrated Samuel Auguste David Tissot, took up the idea of masturbation as a dangerous illness or why Tissot’s 1760 work, L’Onanisme, became an instant European literary sensation.

Tissot was not peddling tinctures or titillation, and he was not taken in by the earlier work whose name and concept he appropriated: the English tract, he wrote, “is a real chaos…one of the most unconnected productions that has appeared for a long time.” But far from rejecting its central idea, Tissot “definitively launched masturbation,” as Laqueur puts it, “into the mainstream of Western culture.” It was not long before almost the entire medical profession attributed an inexhaustible list of woes to solitary sex, a list that included spinal tuberculosis, epilepsy, pimples, madness, general wasting, and an early death.

Whatever was driving his intense anxiety—Tissot thought that masturbation was “much the more to be dreaded” than smallpox—it was not, Laqueur argues, the consequence of an empirical increase in masturbation. No one in the eighteenth century claimed that there was more masturbation than ever before—how, in any case, would they have determined this?—and even if statistics proving such an increase miraculously turned up, the terrible anxiety around the issue would still need to be explained. Moreover, there were no new medical observations, discoveries, or even hypotheses that would account for what came to be regarded as so dangerous about the act. And the startling vision of its terrible consequences was not the work of churchmen and cultural conservatives. Their position had not changed.

Modern masturbation—and this is Laqueur’s brilliant point—was the creature of the Enlightenment. It was the age of reason, triumph over superstition, and the tolerant, even enthusiastic acceptance of human sexuality that conjured up the monster of self-abuse. Prior to Tissot and his learned medical colleagues, it was possible for most ordinary people to masturbate, as Pepys had done, without more than a twinge of guilt. After Tissot, anyone who indulged in this secret pleasure did so in the full, abject knowledge of the horrible consequences. Masturbation was an assault on health, on reason, on marriage, and even on pleasure itself. For Enlightenment doctors and their allies did not concede that masturbation was a species of pleasure, however minor or embarrassing; it was at best a false pleasure, a perversion of the real. As such it was dangerous and had at all costs to be prevented.

Confirmation of this surprising conclusion comes from someone who can hardly be accused of prudery: Giacomo Casanova. The great Venetian lover and adventurer recalled a conversation he had in Istanbul in the 1740s with a distinguished Turkish philosopher, Yusuf Ali. “He asked me if I was married.” Casanova, who was still at that time contemplating entering the priesthood, replied that he was not and hoped never to be. “What!” Yusuf Ali answered. “Then I must either believe that you are not a complete man or that you want to damn yourself, unless you tell me that you are a Christian only in show.” “I am a complete man, and I am a Christian,” Casanova answered, adding candidly, “I will further tell you that I love the fair sex and that I hope to enjoy many conquests among them.”

Your religion says that you will be damned,” said the Muslim sage. “I am sure that I shall not, for when we confess our crimes to our priests they are obliged to absolve us.” In the same spirit of candor, Yusuf Ali replied that he found this idea idiotic, and then he asked, “Is masturbation a crime among you too?” “An even greater crime than unlawful copulation,” the Venetian answered. “So I know,” Yusuf Ali continued, “and it has always surprised me, for any legislator who promulgates a law which cannot be enforced is a fool. A man who has no woman and who is in good health cannot but masturbate when imperious nature makes him feel the need for it.”

Casanova’s response goes to the heart of the history that Laqueur has written, for in it we watch Christian moralism give way to medicalization:

We Christians believe just the contrary. We claim that young men who indulge in the practice impair their constitutions and shorten their lives. In many communities they are closely watched, left absolutely no time to commit this crime on themselves.

Masturbation is a crime not because it violates a divine edict—Casanova is far too worldly to brood on that possibility—but because it is for him what smoking or obesity are for us.

This vision of the health risks of solitary sex entirely failed to impress Yusuf Ali, who was equally contemptuous of the attempts to stop it by surveillance:

Those who watch them are ignoramuses and those who pay them to do so are fools, for the prohibition itself must increase the desire to break a law so tyrannical and so contrary to nature.

This observation seems self-evident, yet for the Western doctors and philosophers whose up-to-date views Ca-sanova reflects, what was contrary to nature was not the prohibition but the act itself.

Read more

Link: Portable Hell

The world is going to hell in a hurry. At my age, I ought to be used to it, but I’m not.

Perhaps ignorance is bliss, I say to myself, and think of people I know who care little about what goes on in the world. I have sympathy for them. It’s no fun starting one’s day or retiring at night with images of dead children.

When he was old, my father said that he could think of two ways to break his addiction to newspapers: enter a monastery or a lunatic asylum.

Today’s news is always old news. The innocent get slaughtered and someone makes up excuses.

The same type of lunatics who made the world what it was when I was a child are still around. Their names have changed, their nationalities and causes, too, but they are as demented and as bloodthirsty as they ever were.

To hear our conservatives talk, our problems are only moral ones: the laziness of our poor and the insatiable sexual appetite of our women being on the top of the list. Yes, of course, but it’s more than that. They just can’t close their legs.

We should demand that the servants of the rich and powerful in every walk of life wear livery appropriate to their rank, as they did in the past centuries.

I caught myself scratching my head with a match as if trying to set it on fire.

They got up and applauded the rich guy for bankrupting companies and laying off employees and crowded afterward to get his autograph.

Eighty thousand people held in solitary in our prisons. Think about that as you plump your pillow and make yourself comfy in your bed some night.

Has any country ever admitted killing civilians out of a desire for revenge? Like everyone else in occupied Europe, I hated Germans and wished them all dead. However, later on, when I saw the extent of destruction the Allied bombing had done to their cities, I was horrified by what was obviously pure malice.

Collective punishment, in which the entire population of the enemy country is targeted, so that an old man in a wheelchair and a kid reading a book in bed are in as much danger as a tank, is a vile impulse, and though it is now regarded as a violation of the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions, it has continued to be practiced long after Dresden and Hiroshima.

Taking into account unintended consequences is not regarded as a necessary component of strategic thinking in Washington. No wonder our grand project to remake the world in our own image, shape the future, and determine the outcome of history has proved to be as much of a flop as the world revolution the old commies were preaching.

“Collateral damage” is what somebody’s grandparents with their heads blown off are called today.

Of course, this is not generally how we talk about things. We practice what Ted Snider in a recent blog post called “a doctrine of historical creationism,” an interpretation of current events that is manipulated by selecting a convenient starting point for them—one that leaves out prior events and the larger setting in which they are unfolding.

There’s an authoritarian strain to this need to restrict historical precedent and turn serious issues into comic book narratives. We encounter it both in political commentary on Russia, Ukraine, Gaza, and Iran and in the way domestic issues are discussed. For people with long memories, this is not just infuriating but also terrifying.

This is a just war; we ought to remind the population of the next country we invade. People killed by our bombs can regard themselves as extremely lucky.

Portable hell, the kind that can fit comfortably inside your head, despite the vast crowds of the damned and all that fire and smoke, is what you end up with after reading the world news these days.

It’s strange that reporters continue to ask our elected representatives for their opinions, as if the rich who contributed millions to their campaigns would allow them to have any of their own.

A society like ours in which the wealthy are spending millions to prevent the minimum wage from being raised for those sinking deeper and deeper into poverty, and to sabotage health insurance coverage for those who have none, is not a society at all but a state of war, as Mark Twain would have said.

Who would have thought that people with a thorough knowledge of history and science would become pariahs among their fellow citizens?

It’s been a while since I last read anyone, aside from palpable hucksters, make an argument that the world is getting to be a better place, or that we are about to turn a new leaf in this country.

“Privatization” is what the transfer of public funds into the pockets of the few is called.

I forget: Who said, “He lives most gaily who knows how to deceive himself”?

The gourmet recipe in the dining section of the Times was Fisherman’s Beef Stew—or did I get that wrong?

A man changed himself back into a monkey through an operation and returned to live in the trees happily ever after, I once read in a tabloid waiting in line at the supermarket. I’m thinking that may not really be so bad.

May these beautiful summer days that remain pass with as little hurry as a pregnant nun going to confession.

Link: The Cultural History of Pain

Speculation about the degree to which human beings and animals experienced pain has a long history.

On 16 April 1872, a woman signing herself “An Earnest Eng­lishwoman” published a letter in the Times. It was entitled “Are Women Animals?”.

She was clearly very angry. Her fury had been fuelled by recent court cases in which a man who had “coolly knocked out” the eye of his mistress and another man who had killed his wife were imprisoned for just a few months each. In contrast, a man who had stolen a watch was punished severely, sentenced to not only seven years’ penal servitude, but also 40 lashes of the “cat”. She noted that although some people might believe that a watch was an “object of greater value than the eye of a mistress or the life of a wife”, she was asking readers to remember that “the inanimate watch does not suffer”. It must cause acute agony for any “living creature, endowed with nerves and muscles, to be blinded or crushed to death”.

Indeed, she continued, she had “read of heavier sentences being inflicted for cruelty towards that – may I venture to say? – lower creation”. She pleaded for women to be subsumed under legislation forbidding cruelty to animals, because that would improve their position in law.

Speculation about the degree to which human beings and animals experienced pain has a long history, but “An Earnest Englishwoman” was writing at a very important time in these debates. Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man had been published the year before her letter, and his Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals appeared in 1872. Both Darwin and “An Earnest Englishwoman” were addressing a central question that had intrigued theologians, scientists, philosophers, psychologists and other social commentators for centuries: how can we know how other people feel?

The reason this question was so important was that many people didn’t believe that all human beings (let alone non-human animals) were equally capable of suffering. Scientists and philosophers pointed to the existence of a hierarchy of sentience. Belief in a great “Chain of Being”, according to which everything in the universe was ranked from the highest to the lowest, is a fundamental tenet of western philosophy. One aspect of this Chain of Being involved the perception of sensation. There was a parallel great Chain of Feeling, which placed male Europeans at one end and slaves and animals at the other.

Of course, “An Earnest Englishwoman” was using satire to argue for greater rights for women. She was not accusing men of failing to acknowledge that women were capable of experiencing pain. Indeed, that much-maligned group of Victorian women – hysterics – was believed to be exquisitely sensitive to noxious stimuli. Rather, she was drawing attention to the way a lack of respect for the suffering of some people had a profound impact on their status in society. If the suffering of women were treated as seriously as the suffering of animals, she insisted, women’s lives would be better.

Although she does not discuss it in her short letter, the relationship between social status and perceptions of sentience was much more fraught for other groups within British and American societies. In particular, people who had been placed at the “lower” end of the Chain of Feeling paid an extremely high price for prejudices about their “inability” to feel. In many white middle-class and upper-class circles, slaves and “savages”, for instance, were routinely depicted as possessing a limited capacity to experience pain, a biological “fact” that conveniently diminished any culpability among their so-called superiors for acts of abuse inflicted on them. Although the author of Practical Rules for the Management and Medical Treatment of Negro Slaves, in the Sugar Colonies (1811) conceded that “the knife of the anatomist … has never been able to detect” anatomical differences between slaves and their white masters, he nevertheless contended that slaves were better “able to endure, with few expressions of pain, the accidents of nature”. This was providential indeed, given that they were subjected to so many “accidents of nature” while labouring on sugar-cane plantations.

Such beliefs were an important factor in imperial conquests. With voyeuristic curiosity, travellers and explorers often commented on what they regarded as exotic responses to pain by indigenous peoples. In Australia, newly arrived colonisers breathlessly maintained that Native Australians’ “endurance of pain” was “something marvellous”. Others used the theme as an excuse for mockery. For instance, the ability of New Zealand Maoris to bear pain was ascribed to their “vanity”. They were said to be so enamoured with European shoes that “when one of them was happy enough to become the possessor of a pair, and found that they were too small, he would not hesitate to chop off a toe or two, stanch the bleeding by covering the stump with a little hemp, and then force the feet [sic] into the boots”.

But what was it about the non-European body that allegedly rendered it less suscep­tible to painful stimuli? Racial sciences placed great emphasis on the development and complexity of the brain and nerves. As the author of Pain and Sympathy (1907) concluded, attempting to explain why the “savage” could “bear physical torture without shrinking”: the “higher the life, the keener is the sense of pain”.

There was also speculation that the civilising process itself had rendered European peoples more sensitive to pain. The cele­brated American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell stated in 1892 that in the “process of being civilised we have won … intensified capacity to suffer”. After all, “the savage does not feel pain as we do: nor as we examine the descending scale of life do animals seem to have the acuteness of pain-sense at which we have arrived”.

Some speculated whether the availability of anaesthetics and analgesics had an effect on people’s ability (as well as willingness) to cope with acute affliction. Writing in the 1930s, the distinguished pain surgeon René Leriche argued fervently that Europeans had become more sensitive to pain. Unlike earlier in the century, he claimed, modern patients “would not have allowed us to cut even a centimetre … without administering an anaesthetic”. This was not due to any decline of moral fibre, Leriche added: rather, it was a sign of a “nervous system differently developed, and more sensitive”.

Other physicians and scientists of the 19th and early 20th centuries wanted to complicate the picture by making a distinction between pain perception and pain reaction. But this distinction was used to denigrate “outsider” groups even further. Their alleged insensitivity to pain was proof of their humble status – yet when they did exhibit pain reactions, their sensitivity was called “exaggerated” or “hysterical” and therefore seen as more evidence of their inferiority. Such confused judgements surfaced even in clinical literature that purported to repudiate value judgements. For instance, John Finney was the first president of the American College of Surgeons. In his influential book The Significance and Effect of Pain (1914), he amiably claimed:

It does not always follow that because a patient bears what appears to be a great amount of pain with remarkable fortitude, that that individual is more deserving of credit or shows greater self-control than the one who does not; for it is a well-established fact that pain is not felt to the same degree by all individuals alike.

However, in the very same section, Finney made pejorative statements about people with a low pain threshold (they possessed a “yellow streak”, he said) and insisted that patients capable of bearing pain showed “wonderful fortitude”.

In other words, civilised, white, professional men might be exquisitely sensitive to pain but, through acts of willpower, they were capable of masking their reaction. In contrast, Finney said, the dark-skinned and the uneducated might bear “a great amount of pain with remarkable fortitude” but they did not necessarily deserve credit for it.

It was acknowledged that feeling pain was influenced by emotional and psychological states. The influence of “mental factors” on the perception of pain had been observed for centuries, especially in the context of religious torture. Agitation, ecstasy and ideological fervour were known to diminish (or even eliminate) suffering.

This peculiar aspect of pain had been explored most thoroughly in war. Military lore held that the “high excitement” of combat lessened the pain of being wounded. Even Lucretius described how when

the scythed chariots, reeking with indiscriminate slaughter, suddenly chop off the limbs … such is the quickness of the injury and the eagerness of the man’s mind that he cannot feel the pain; and because his mind is given over to the zest of battle, maimed though he be, he plunges afresh into the fray and the slaughter.

Time and again, military observers have noted how, in the heat of battle, wounded men might not feel even severe wounds. These anecdotal observations were confirmed by a systematic study carried out during the Second World War. The American physician Henry K Beecher served in combat zones on the Venafro and Cassino fronts in Italy. He was struck by how there was no necessary correlation between the seriousness of any specific wound and the men’s expressions of suffering: perhaps, he concluded, the strong emotions aroused in combat were responsible for the absence of acute pain – or the pain might also be alleviated by the knowledge that wartime wounding would release a soldier from an exceedingly dangerous environment.

Beecher’s findings were profoundly influential. As the pain researchers Harold Wolff and Stewart Wolf found in the 1950s, most people perceived pain at roughly similar intensities, but their threshold for reaction varied widely: it “depends in part upon what the sensation means to the individual in the light of his past experiences”.

Away from the battlefield, debates about the relative sensitivity of various people were not merely academic. The seriousness of suffering was calibrated according to such characterisations. Sympathy was rationed unevenly.

Myths about the lower susceptibility of certain patients to painful stimuli justified physicians prescribing fewer and less effective analgesics and anaesthetics. This was demonstrated by the historian Martin Pernick in his work on mid-19th-century hospitals. In A Calculus of Suffering (1985), Pernick showed that one-third of all major limb amputations at the Pennsylvania Hospital between 1853 and 1862 had been done without any anaesthetic, even though it was available. Distinguished surgeons such as Frank Hamilton carried out more than one-sixth of all non-military amputations on fully conscious patients.

This is not simply peculiar to earlier centuries. For instance, the belief that infants were not especially liable to experiencing pain (or that indications of suffering were merely reflexes) was prominent for much of the 20th century and had profound effects on their treatment. Painful procedures were routinely carried out with little, if any, anaesthetic or analgesic. Max Thorek, the author of Modern Surgical Technique (1938), claimed that “often no anaesthetic is required”, when operating on young infants: indeed, “a sucker consisting of a sponge dipped in some sugar water will often suffice to calm the baby”.

As “An Earnest Englishwoman” recognised, beliefs about sentience were linked to ideas of who was considered fully human. Slaves, minority groups, the poor and others in society could also be dispossessed politically, economically and socially on the grounds that they did not feel as much as others. The “Earnest Englishwoman’s” appeal – which drew from a tradition of respect and consideration that lays emphasis on the capacity to suffer – is one that has been echoed by the oppressed and their supporters throughout the centuries.

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Link: Aleksandar Hemon on Man’s Inhumanity to Man

The Bosnian novelist discusses five books on man’s inhumanity to man, including works by Primo Levi and Cormac McCarthy - and Borowski’s chillingly titled This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentleme.

Can you describe Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man?

It’s called Survival in Auschwitz in the US to give it a positive spin – that’s the American publishing world: the Holocaust is all right as long as there are survivors. Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, arrested in 1944 after Italy capitulated and the Nazis took over. He was shipped off to Auschwitz, but because he had a chemical degree, or because he was lucky – which was how he saw it – he was working in the chemical factory in Auschwitz, which was a technological venture. So he managed to survive and see the end, and in fact the book also deals with the last ten days when the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz and the Russian troops had not yet arrived. Levi went back to Italy, indeed to the very same apartment where he was born, so his life was interrupted horribly. And then he wrote about his experiences, and eventually he committed suicide.

He bears witness to the Holocaust, but he’s a scientist, and he needs to understand the ethical system, as it were, behind those crimes. However perverted it is, he’s trying to understand how it works. So he talks about individual experiences, including his own. They’re always examples of a larger – I don’t want to say theory – but of a larger proposition or explanation. He unpacks the formula, as it were, behind it all. So it’s the victory of reason – or the proper kind of reason, as opposed to the Nazi kind of reason. The Holocaust was not madness: it was a technology, a system, and therefore rational. And Levi regains reason, by treating his experience in Auschwitz as something that is subject to rational analysis.

Your next book?

This is a book of stories which was originally published immediately after WWII, so they were very fresh, by Tadeusz Borowski: a young Pole who was a member of the Resistance, and who was arrested and incarcerated. He was an Auschwitz survivor. He killed himself while still in his 20s. The title story: This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, is about a group of inmates whose duties are to help unload the transport. It’s a horrifying story. It’s a horrifying book. He was not Jewish. So while Primo Levi talks from a superior moral position, from the point of view of a Jew, and someone for whom the starting point of the whole thing was the worthlessness of their life, Tadeusz Borowski could make choices, albeit under enormous moral and ethical pressures. He shows the dehumanisation of Auschwitz from a slightly different angle. It seems that the narrator makes the wrong choice: to go for survival at the expense of any respectful ethical choice. But that just shows how hard it was there. It’s not just suffering; it’s the violence and the ethics of it.

There’s another story where the inmates are playing football, and on the other side of the barbed wire fence is a transport. The narrator goes to get the ball when it goes out, and can see thousands of people lining up. Next time he goes to get the ball, there’s no one, and, he says, thousands of people perished between those two moments. So the narrator is not someone who wants to bear witness because it’s his ethical duty – which is Primo Levi’s position. The narrator in Borowski is someone who selfishly, so it seems, wants to protect himself from death and hunger – but at the same time he cannot but see what is happening: so he has this struggle which is horrifying in and of itself, and at the same time dehumanising and humanising. The struggle to stay a human being in a challenging situation is that if you want to stay a human being ethically, you have to stay a human being physically. And that’s what his struggle is, so it bears witness to the Holocaust in a different way.

Red Cavalry?

This is a fictionalised account of the expedition of the Red Cavalry – the Soviet expeditionary force – which in 1920 attacked Poland, hoping to reach Warsaw and establish a Soviet government. Babel was sent with the Red Cavalry as a reporter for a propaganda newspaper, and it’s based on his diaries. Red Cavalry begins with the Cossack troops crossing the River Zbrucz. After crossing, the narrator sees the sun rolling on the horizon like a lopped off head, and then you know that it’s not going to be comfortable. The book is made up of autonomous stories in which the central narrator is Lyutov, who’s obviously standing in for Babel, because he’s bookish and wears glasses. They are not always about Lyutov – sometimes he just reports or pretends to be reporting, and sometimes they are about how he works with the Cossack troops. Lyutov is Jewish – it is not always clear if the Cossacks know that. Cossacks, of course, practice the sport of killing Jews whenever they can. So Lyutov and Babel are in a very awkward position of at the same time being presumably loyal to the Revolution and to their comrades the Cossacks, and also to the tradition of Jews, and of non-violent engagement with the world. Lyutov does not adapt: he says he does not have that most basic of capabilities – to kill a man – and he fails as a Cossack in more ways than one.

It is an incredible piece of literature. Babel has an aesthetic that corresponds to not only his sensibility, but also to his awkward circumstance. You can sense the conflict between the sentences: they don’t flow smoothly, logically from each another; there’s a dialectic of narration, and you can sense the discipline. It was tricky for him: how to bear witness to things, how to talk about the fact that Cossacks were killing Jews, without being sent before a firing squad.

He failed that test?

Well, yes – although in the 1920s Babel apologised to the Cossack leader, Budyonny, and said the book was a mistake. But then he stayed put and never wrote anything like that again, vegetated as a writer, and was shot eventually. His last recorded words were to the NKVD agent who picked him up. Babel said to him, ‘You’re pretty busy these days.’

Blood Meridian?

It’s possibly the greatest American novel of the past 25 years. It is unique. Blood Meridian is amazing, because it’s so rigid in its outlook, so committed to its vision, that it does not care about the conflict of the reader who, if sane, has to be uncomfortable. It is the most violent book I have read. This is a book about a bunch of scalp-hunters in Southwestern American territories before the Civil War, who were hired to hunt, kill, and scalp Native Americans. It follows them as they ride on and roam around killing Indians, committing horrible massacres. It is quite literally apocalyptic. There’s a stretch of about 60 pages, when the only subject is the group, and the most common sentence is ‘They rode on’.

What is most uncomfortable for the reader is that there’s no space in the book from which you can judge it, no space into which the reader could step to protect himself or herself from this world – there are no good guys. Of course, you can close the book and go away, but there’s one scene of a massacre of Indians that is one continuous sentence for a couple of pages. If the sentence ends, or if it’s broken up into little sentences you could quit after, you know, the 25th sentence, but they are strung together paratactically, and you ride on in the sentence.

There’s also to my mind the most amazing character in American fiction in the 20th century: the Judge, who provides theories that justify the world in which these men operate. Also what I like about it is that it entirely blocks the kind of reading that is based on empathy. You cannot identify ethically or morally, or even intellectually or psychologically, with any of the characters. There’s no expression of emotion, no interiority: those men act, and when they act, they act violently. It desensitises you; not because you don’t care, but because the violence is a part of a larger plan. It is not a question of individual agency but rather of the state of the world, or the underlying laws that govern the world.

Tell me about The Known World.

It’s a novel about slavery, but specifically the few recorded instances of black slave-owners, and it’s a masterful, masterful work, the most complete work of literary imagination in recent American fiction. Edward P. Jones could be one of the greatest living American writers. Again it blocks the simple emotional reading that provides redemption, and teaches you that slavery was bad. It shows how dehumanising the whole system was, not only to the slaves, but to everyone involved; it is quite literally soul-emptying. It is of course, again, in some ways like the Holocaust: it was not madness, it was a rational system, an economic system in which all participated in various ways. Even among the slaves there were differences and hierarchies, and degrees of ethical involvement with the issue of slavery. Jones narrates, or manages, dozens of characters. They’re all individually defined, but there’s no central consciousness the way there might be in a straight up psychological novel that you follow as it progresses through some sort of sociological landscape, and so it’s like he’s conducting an orchestra of characters. He shifts from one to the other and has this particular narrative device in which he goes beyond the knowledge of his characters to tell the reader what will happen to them in the years after slavery. The suffering is not simply the physical suffering of individuals; it goes well beyond that. It goes to the heart of the system.

What Jones does is very important, I believe, when we’re talking about war and violence and suffering: not to reduce the understanding to a mere emotional response. Of course the Holocaust is horrifying, of course slavery is horrifying, but if you just see emotional release and redemption then you never understand it and never experience it as a reader.

Why did you choose this subject to talk about?

There’s a way of reading books that’s common in the United States, which is to identify with the best person in the book. And there are complications related to this particular mode of reading: you have to react emotionally to texts, and then analyse your emotions as though you’re analysing a text, and then in that emotional release find redemption. As far as Primo Levi goes, that doesn’t really do anything. It’s hard for me to feel better about the Holocaust when I read Primo Levi. Blood Meridian is the most radical in that sense, in that it’s obviously not about the Holocaust or anything comparable, but it simply does not allow you to assert your moral and human superiority. It confronts you with things that you would rather not know, and it blocks this emotional reading: you have to think about it.

Link: Why Europeans should Reread the Stoics to Save Themselves from Resignation

In the first installment of our Spanish series on the “other” origins of Europethe legend of the wolf and the Bear put us on the trail of Mithraism. And the second installment discovered that Mithraism was born in an environment that was heavily influenced by Stoicism, if not a deliberate product of this philosophical movement. But, who were these philosophers that became so influential between 300 BCE and the imposition of Christianity in 380 CE?

Zeno was born around 334 BCE in Cyprus. He was the son of a merchant. We know that he was a disciple of Crates, one of the leading thinkers of the Cynic school. But when he was around thirty years old, he had a full-blown crisis about the teachings of his elders. In today’s terms, and in very plain words, the Cynics were degrowthers, and Zeno was a minimalist. So, he broke with Athen’s Cynical millieu and began teaching at the painted portico of the Acropolis. Portico in Greek is stoa, so Zeno and his followers started to become known as the “Stoics.”

But there was a Cynic idea that Zeno and his disciples rejected even more than the love for poverty that the former professed: That of a necessarily chaotic world, characterized by irrational principles or historical deities. That’s what sums up his famous maxim: “There is both a rational and natural order of things.” Of course, by “things,” he refers to the scope of the disciplines that we know today as Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. Zeno divided the available knowledge of his time into three main branches: Logic (formal thinking), Physics (what we now call the “hard” and natural sciences) and Ethics (which formed the basis of social relationships).

For the Stoics, Nature begins and ends in itself, and in that sense it is a large network of interrelations, which can be approximated by natural “laws.” The Stoics embrace the empiricism of the Epicureans, and against the “skeptics” — a school that broadly suggested that reality was unknowable — and Platonic idealism, they defended the notion that consensus on the representations that our senses make of natural reality is enough to propose models and demonstrations. That is, they relativize the results of the natural sciences, stripping them of ultimate truth and infusing them with social and historical truth — a truth based on a consensus that may change.

In this sense, the Stoic theory of knowledge lay the foundations that would much later legitimize what we call “the scientific method” and its conception of science as an approximation of the reality of Nature, as if aiming towards a constantly moving target. Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE) said that truth about Nature is available through investigation, but that there always will be much to discover because “an era is not enough time for research” (ad inquisitionem tantorum una aetas non sufficit). And maybe that’s why Stoics are more interested in the social than the natural.

To begin with, given their “scientific” conception of Nature, they consider that it is not possible to conceive of any “virtue” (self-improvement) that is not based on the acceptance of natural laws and the determinism implicit in them. In other words, there is no room for comforting ourselves with thinking that gods or supernatural phenomena will suddenly show up to get us out of trouble in extreme situations. The natural world is what it is, and there are no grounds to believe in anything other than better knowledge as a tool for surviving and thriving in it. Hence the popular use of the word “Stoic” to mean resignation, a notion that came about as an interpretation and value judgment of Christianity, which succeeded Stoicism as the dominant ideology in decaying Rome.

The virtuous person, the wise person, then, is someone who, above all, accepts the materiality of existence and its subordination to natural laws. In terms of the Eastern monotheisms, the Stoic will be more of an atheist than a pagan. But because the Stoics recognize a “divine,” creative principle in every living being and nature as a whole, they will become known as “pantheistic.” And in fact, the “pantheism” of the Stoics is a bit more complicated than the usual interpretation of the term.

Zeno imagines a sort of fiery “vital principle” that is present in all natural phenomena, especially in living things. Seneca states “divinity” is synonym with “the mind of Nature”, i.e., with its laws and wonderful equilibria. And to the possibility of a body-soul dualism, he sharply retorts: “I have a body, therefore I am, and if I also have a soul, it is because it is in the body.” (orpora ergo sunt, et quae animi sunt; nam et hic est corpus est). A remarkable notion centuries before psychoanalysis or neuroscience, which contradicts the denatured version of him promoted by Christian apologists, who presented him as a proto-Christian and came up with the legend that he had corresponded with St. Paul. Actually, according to Zeno, if there is a soul, it dies with the body. There is only nothingness after death. In the words of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) — another stoic that Christian historiographers have tried to “recover” through quotes taken out of context and mistranslations — “we live for a moment, only to fall into complete oblivion and the infinite vacuum.”

The Stoics withdraw the gods from Nature and place them, emptied of “superstitio,” in the social realm. Certainly not as autonomous “beings” involved in the course of history and natural phenomena, but as allegories of principles and values present in the will of each one of us. They understand the social realm in a similar manner to how they understand Nature: as a large network of interrelationships and interactions in which we have some leeway, some ability to rebalance relations unilaterally, even de facto leaving and breaking them if necessary. Epictetus (55-135), a Greek slave who ended up as one of the masters of his time, says:

Duties are universally measured by relations. Is your brother unfair? Well, keep your situation with him intact. Do not consider what he does but what you do to keep your freedom in a state consistent with Nature. Nobody can hurt you if you do not consent. You will only be hurt you if believe you’ve been hurt. In this way, therefore, applying the idea to a neighbor, a citizen or a general, you can establish the corresponding duties if you get used to consider the different relationships.

So. following the same reasoning, by cultivating the values of their choice through allegories, rituals, and ceremonies, people learn to take ownership of their own behavior and therefore become able to rationally modify social interactions and their outcomes, bringing them closer to their own way of being. For the Stoics, ethics are the basis of all action within the social realm.

This is why they became one of the main forces that transformed the Roman “religio” into an allegorical system of values for coexistence. Because the belief in supernatural autonomous beings in the style of the Asian gods, with a symbolic language of its own, seemed to them to be childish “superstitio.” As Cato famously said in a phrase later picked up by Cicero, “it is incredible that a haruspex doesn’t break out in laughter when he sees another haruspex.” But of course, the idea of transforming ancient and foreign religions into allegories is not unique to the Stoics, as it was part of the ethos of the ruling classes of the republican era. Cicero himself (106 BCE – 43 BCE), who was a colleague of Cato in the Senate and one of the most influential critics of Stoicism during the first imperial stage, openly campaigns for “rationally” creating tailor-made gods, catering to the common need of “living together”:

It is also convenient to deify human virtues such as intelligence, Pietas [self growth through community], Virtus [self improvement], and Fides [respect for the given word]. In Rome, all these virtues have officially consecrated temples, so that those who have them — and certainly, people of good faith have them — believe that in this way the gods are installed in their spirits.

It is in this sense that Marcus Aurelius, in the first book of his “Meditations,” thanks his mother for teaching him “respect for the gods” as much as his father for teaching him not bear “any superstitious fear.” Gods are allegories; having “an unfounded fear of the Gods” is “superstitio,” that is, confusing the representation of allegories with autonomous beings endowed with will and capacity to intervene in nature and history.

But for the Stoics, everything has an extra little twist. Beyond the “superstitio,” we must be careful with those values, because whichever we choose, they must not oppose nature and its laws, nor human nature. There is no virtue in pain. There is no virtue in pursuing scarcity or suffering, just as there is no virtue in the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. An ethics that is not based on the naturalness of humans, in the rationality of an understanding of their role in nature, can only be “pathological” and take us away from ataraxia, the serenity on which the Epicureans had already based their ethics. As Seneca said, “secundum naturam suma vivere” — to live according to (our) nature.

That serenity is born out of a life based on safeguarding freedom and making free use of Reason. For Seneca, once again, the meaning of life is to know and learn, that’s what the “elevation” or true deification of man is all about. The Stoic sage understands virtue as reasoning, learning, and gaining knowledge in a material environment without excess or painful shortcomings. Marcus Aurelius thanks his parents for having allowed him to have private teachers instead of being sent to a public school because “for such purposes, it is necessary to spend generously,” and on the other hand, teaching him how “not to live like the rich.” Spending in knowledge is not superfluous, as it increases personal freedom by allowing him to better understand the nature of things; conspicuous consumption, on the contrary, makes us dependent on external power and takes us away from our own nature, making us less free.

Stoic “minimalism” is designed to maintain serenity, to strengthen personal autonomy over crony relationships based on authoritarian distribution of welfare. The wise should not aspire to anything that cannot be produced within a set of relationships in “accordance with Nature,” that is, voluntary, free, and based on mutually agreed rights and duties. Epictetus says:

Power is bestowed upon those who can give what others want and remove what others despise. Therefore, whoever wants to be free must get used to not holding any desire or aversion towards that which depends on alien power. Otherwise, he will necessarily be a slave.

Having defined ethics as the central concern of the Stoic, and virtue as the only reasonable goal, the political becomes subordinated to the possibility of self-improvement. In principle, again following Seneca, the Stoic shall “not fear death, nor chains, nor fire, nor the blows of fortune; for he knows that these things, though they seem evil, are really not.” But if the environment does not allow virtue, they shall not feel greater obligation towards the “polis,” they shall feel free to leave, since they are “cosmopolitans” at heart, they are not loyal to any other community than that which they freely choose for developing their virtue in the context of balanced relationships. The freedom to leave, to segregate, even to commit suicide, is the ultimate requirement for genuine liberty.

That is, the Stoic, for the first time, defines inalienable individual sovereignty on the basis of the maxim “one should fear humans just a little, but not fear gods at all”  (Scit non multum esse ab homine timendum, a Deo nihil).

In practice, what the Stoics tell us is something like “no limits for gaining knowledge and freedom, but do not burden yourself with needs that will make you dependent on others and therefore less free. And if, in any case, you keep relationships with others that provide you with useful things —customers, servants, the State— don’t let them affect you if they they fail or try to manipulate you with the threat of breaking them.” Epictetus again:

Begin, therefore, with the small things. Have you spilled a little oil? Did someone steal some wine from you? Think of this: “This is the price of serenity and tranquility, and nothing is free in this life.” If you call your servant, he may not come; and if he comes, he might not do what you want him to do. But your servant is never so important as to give him the power to upset you in any way.

And for the same reason, they condemn charity (what today we call “welfarism”) in the public realm and propose philanthropy instead, a concept created by them which differs from charity in fostering autonomy instead of dependency. The Stoic emperors will emphasize distributing lands instead of grains (although they continue doing the latter during supply crises), eliminate rents while legalizing and promoting all kinds of guilds and mutual support associations — largely liberalizing the creation of colegia and subtracting monopoly power from them — and practice philanthropy from a primitive view of the imperial apparatus as something light, underpinned by a robust society that is resilient against threats to freedom. Marcus Aurelius thanked his “brother” Severo,

for conceiving the idea of a constitution based on equality before the law, governed by fairness and equal freedom of speech for all, and a royalty that honors and respects, above all, the freedom of his subjects.

Epicureans and Stoics

But what differentiates Epicureans from Stoics? In principle, very little. In the sciences, the Epicureans insisted on their atomic theory as the basis of scientific materialism, and the Stoics on a reticular view, in nature as a large set of interconnected things. In epistemology, the Epicureans were probably more subtle and arrived in the early stages of the Empire to similar statements to those of Renaissance science. And in their ethics, both seek Ataraxia, serenity or personal sovereignty as a result of virtue.

But Epicurean serenity is based on happiness, and Stoic serenity on love for knowledge. And the difference is not a minor one. The promise of of Epicurus, another minimalist avant la lettre, of happiness through moderation, joy, and doing things, will eventually tie the Epicurean to a wider social context .

Following the models of Nature of each school, the Stoics see themselves as social atoms, individuals pursuing knowledge and Serenity. Epicureans see themselves as nodes of a network, and as such, part of a small, real community, united by happiness and fraternity.

As a result, Stoicism — individualistic, secular, balanced, lover of life — in the end, is bound and subjected to politics, as there is nothing that shields the individual from the whole of society or the State.

The Stoic — in principle alien and not interested in the State, ready to leave or commit suicide if there aren’t sufficient conditions to live as they like — ends up influencing the learning and values of the imperial elites to the point of shaping the government of at least two of the so-called “five good emperors”: Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, the latter becoming one of the last great Stoic thinkers of antiquity.

But, also, probably due to practical reasons more than Epicurean influence, they will also influence the social reality encouraging communitarian movements among the “cosmopolitan” classes (as we saw with Mithraism)

Platonics and Stoics

The core of Platonism is the theory of ideas. According to this theory, the world as we perceive it is only a representation of another, abstract world of unchanging ideas. Everything that is “real” for us is just a degraded form compared to its origin. This importance of the ideal and original nature of things (ontology) has shaped many of the ideologies that still live among us. For Christian ontological thought, the heir of Platonism, things are pure in their origin, for ideas are divine creations, and their “passage” through the world is nothing but a degradation, which only makes sense if history is understood as a road towards restoration, a return to the origin. This source would be God, as conceived by Christians, but the general template morphs into many avatars: the class emancipates itself and in turn emancipates all mankind in Marxism, the motherland that gains back its original essence through the assertion of a state of its own in a culturally “purified” identity, etc.

Stoics and Epicureans are at the opposite end of this ontological view of the world which seeks to “change men,” “improving” them according to preconceived ideals. For the Stoics, what matters is not “restoring” anything, nor does it makes sense to try to change human needs. It’s about having a full view of what is possible and acting accordingly. And for that we must align expectations with the possibilities set by the laws of nature, knowledge and the available technology at any given time. The gods will not make it rain, put an end to disease, or change the course of rivers.

And much in the same spirit, we cannot expect human nature to change, nor change it through laws and punishments. Instead, human nature must be understood as it is, and from there, virtuous “ethoses” must be encouraged. Yes, in plural. Because for the Stoics, although “human nature” has a common basis, it does not develop or manifest itself equally for every person, but takes shape based on their own experience, knowledge, and the meaning they have given to their own existence.

That is, Stoicism’s relationship with nature is primarily “technological,” since it won’t strive to go “back to the origin,” but towards an alignment, through the use of scientific knowledge, between what’s possible within the environment and what’s necessary for people.

And likewise, in the social realm it will generate a “praxology” that will develop an ethics of virtue/knowledge wherever the Stoic may act in the world, whether in a small philosophical community or in the magistracies of Empire. That praxology has to take into account “what is the nature of the whole and what is mine, and how that behaves with respect to the other, and [in turn], which whole that part belongs to,” that is, thinking in terms of communities and networks. And always, at least for Marcus Aurelius, who in the end was an emperor, without giving up the practice of speaking frankly, since “no one prevents you from always acting and saying that which is consistent with Nature, of which you are part.”

The Stoic Ethos of Learning

Discovering that “nature of things” is the permanent adventure of the Stoic. And as we have seen, it doesn’t assume that human nature is unanimous or that it functions according to a unique model. Every person standing before us is a world to decipher. So unlike the Cynic, the Stoic won’t be silent, but a “serene” listener. When Zeno was invited for the first time by Antigonus of Macedonia to a banquet, apparently the king, surprised by his silence, sent him a message asking why he was not involved in the conversation. “Tell the king that here is a man who knows how to listen,” he replied. A celebrated phrase by a character said to have joked with a disciple saying that if we have two ears and only one mouth, it is because we should listen twice as much as we speak.

But neither Zeno nor any of the great Greek Stoics, let alone the Latin ones, were in any way sparing with their speech or agraphic. They were actually defining a form of social relationships based on active listening, just as their relationship with Nature was based on practical observation. This love of listening, the first value transmitted by Stoic teachers at all levels to their disciples, will be one of the clues to follow the footsteps of Stoicism in medieval times in future posts.

Moral

The popular use of the word “Stoicism” implies resignation, endurance. But the truth is that the Stoics did not give up, they changed the world by learning to listen, and by making every act and every day a battle to be more free. They didn’t turn to politics and didn’t trust society or the state, even if many great rulers were shaped by their ideas, defended the dignity of slaves, and promoted the extension of education to the less affluent. They did not obsess with origins and essences, but embraced and defended the irreducible diversity of human nature, assuming a cosmopolitanism that extolled real, small communities, dedicated to generating knowledge; they put personal sovereignty and the serenity that characterizes it above any social convention or power structure. And they defended personal integrity and love of knowledge to the point of defending the right to secede and to leave the political community, and even life, if the environment made a virtuous life untenable.

They made up one of the threads with which the tangle of values and stories that we call Europe was was woven. And those of us who live in Europe today should reread them, lest we fall into resignation or melancholy.

Link: Nostalgia

Adaptation and elaboration from Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, Basic Books, New York 2001.

The word “nostalgia” comes from two Greek roots: νόστος, nóstos (“return home”) and ἄλγος, álgos (“longing”). I would define it as a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own phantasy. Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship. A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images—of home and abroad, of past and present, of dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.

In spite of its Greek roots, the word “nostalgia” did not originate in ancient Greece. “Nostalgia” is only pseudo-Greek, or nostalgically Greek. The word was coined by the ambitious Swiss student Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation in 1688.1 (Hofer also suggested monomania and philopatridomania to describe the same symptoms; luckily, the latter failed to enter common parlance.) It would not occur to us to demand a prescription for nostalgia. Yet in the 17th century, nostalgia was considered to be a curable disease, akin to a severe common cold. Swiss doctors believed that opium, leeches, and a journey to the Swiss Alps would take care of nostalgic symptoms. By the end of the 18th century, doctors discovered that a return home did not always cure the nostalgics—sometimes it killed them (especially when patriotic doctors misdiagnosed tuberculosis as nostalgia). Just as today genetic researchers hope to identify genes coding for medical conditions, social behavior, and even sexual orientation, so the doctors in the 18th and 19th centuries looked for a single cause, for one “pathological bone.” Yet they failed to find the locus of nostalgia in their patient’s mind or body. One doctor claimed that nostalgia was a “hypochondria of the heart,” which thrives on its symptoms. From a treatable sickness, nostalgia turned into an incurable disease. A provincial ailment, a maladie du pays, turned into a disease of the modern age, a mal du siècle.

The nostalgia that interests me here is not merely an individual sickness but a symptom of our age, a historical emotion. Hence I will make three crucial points. First, nostalgia in my diagnosis is not “antimodern.” It is not necessarily opposed to modernity but coeval with it. Nostalgia and progress are like Jekyll and Hyde: doubles and mirror images of one another. Nostalgia is not merely an expression of local longing, but the result of a new understanding of time and space that made the division into “local” and “universal” possible.

Secondly, nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place but is actually a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time as space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. Hence the “past of nostalgia,” to paraphrase Faulkner, is not “even the past.” It could merely be another time, or slower time. Time out of time, not encumbered by appointment books.

Thirdly, nostalgia, in my view, is not always retrospective; it can be prospective as well. The fantasies of the past determined by the needs of the present have a direct impact on the realities of the future. Considering the future makes us take responsibility for our nostalgic tales. Unlike melancholia, which confines itself to the planes of individual consciousness, nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory. While futuristic utopias might be out of fashion, nostalgia itself has a utopian dimension, only it is no longer directed toward the future. Sometimes it is not directed toward the past either, but rather sideways. The nostalgic feels stifled within the conventional confines of time and space.

In fact, there is a tradition of critical reflection on the modern condition that incorporates nostalgia. It can be called “off-modern.” The adverb “off” confuses our sense of direction; it makes us explore side-shadows and back alleys rather than the straight road of progress; it allows us to take a detour from the deterministic narrative of 20th‑century history. Off-modernism offered a critique of both the modern fascination with newness, and the no less modern reinvention of tradition. In the off-modern tradition, reflection and longing, estrangement and affection go together.

Modern nostalgia is paradoxical in the sense that the universality of longing can make us more empathetic toward fellow humans, yet the moment we try to repair “longing” with a particular “belonging”—the apprehension of loss with a rediscovery of identity and especially of a national community and a unique and pure homeland—we often part ways and put an end to mutual understanding. Álgos (longing) is what we share, yet nóstos (the return home) is what divides us. It is the promise to rebuild the ideal home that lies at the core of many powerful ideologies of today, tempting us to relinquish critical thinking for emotional bonding. The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home with an imaginary one. In extreme cases, it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unelected nostalgia breeds monsters. Yet the sentiment itself, the mourning of displacement and temporal irreversibility, is at the very core of the modern condition.

Outbreaks of nostalgia often follow revolutions: the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian revolution, and the recent “velvet” revolutions in Eastern Europe were accompanied by political and cultural manifestations of longing. In France it is not only the ancient régime that produced revolution, but in some respect the revolution produced the ancien régime, giving it a shape, a sense of closure, and a gilded aura. Similarly, the revolutionary epoch of perestroika and the end of the Soviet Union produced an image of the last Soviet decades as the time of stagnation or, alternatively, as a Soviet Golden Age of stability, national strength, and “normalcy.” Yet the nostalgia that I explore here is not always for the ancient régime, stable superpower, or the fallen empire, but also for the unrealized dreams of the past and visions of the future that became obsolete. The history of nostalgia might allow us to look back at modern history as a search not only for newness and technological progress, but also for unrealized possibilities, unpredictable turns and crossroads.

The most common currency of the globalism exported all over the world is money and popular culture. Nostalgia too is a feature of global culture, but it demands a different currency. After all, the key words defining globalism—“progress,” “modernity,” and “virtual reality”—were invented by poets and philosophers: “progress” was coined by Immanuel Kant; the noun “modernity” is a creation of Charles Baudelaire; and “virtual reality” was first imagined by Henri Bergson, not Bill Gates. Only in Bergson’s definition, “virtual reality” referred to planes of consciousness, potential dimensions of time and creativity that are distinctly and inimitably human. As far as nostalgia is concerned, having failed to uncover its exact locus, 18th‑century doctors recommended seeking help from poets and philosophers. Nostalgia speaks in riddles and puzzles, trespassing across the boundaries between disciplines and national territories. So one has to face it in order not to become its next victim—or the next victimizer.

Instead of a magic cure for nostalgia, I will offer a tentative typology and distinguish between two main types of nostalgia: the restorative and the reflective. Restorative nostalgia stresses nóstos (home) and attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home. Reflective nostalgia thrives in álgos, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming—wistfully, ironically, desperately. These distinctions are not absolute binaries, and one can surely make a more refined mapping of the gray areas on the outskirts of imaginary homelands. Restorative nostalgia does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition. Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt.

Restorative nostalgia is at the core of recent national and religious revivals. It knows two main plots—the return to origins and the conspiracy. Reflective nostalgia does not follow a single plot but explores ways of inhabiting many places at once and imagining different time zones. It loves details, not symbols. At best, it can present an ethical and creative challenge, not merely a pretext for midnight melancholies. If restorative nostalgia ends up reconstructing emblems and rituals of home and homeland in an attempt to conquer and specialize time, reflective nostalgia cherishes shattered fragments of memory and demoralizes space. Restorative nostalgia takes itself dead seriously. Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, can be ironic and humorous. It reveals that longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, just as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgment, or critical reflection.

The 20th century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia. The optimistic belief in the future has become outmoded while nostalgia, for better or for worse, never went out of fashion, remaining uncannily contemporary.2 Contrary to what the great actress Simone Signore—who entitled her autobiography Nostalgia Is Not What It Used to Be—thought, the structure of nostalgia is in many respects what it used to be, in spite of changing fashions and advances in digital technologyIn the end, the only antidote for the dictatorship of nostalgia might be nostalgic dissidence. Nostalgia can be a poetic creation, an individual mechanism of survival, a countercultural practice, a poison, and a cure. It is up to us to take responsibility of our nostalgia and not let others “prefabricate” it for us. The prepackaged “usable past” may be of no use to us if we want to cocreate our future. Perhaps dreams of imagined homelands cannot and should not come to life. Sometimes it is preferable (at least in the view of this nostalgic author) to leave dreams alone, let them be no more and no less than dreams, not guidelines for the futureWhile restorative nostalgia returns and rebuilds one’s homeland with paranoid determination, reflective nostalgia fears return with the same passion. Home, after all, is not a gated community. Paradise on earth might turn out to be another Potemkin village with no exit. The imperative of a contemporary nostalgic: to be homesick and to be sick of being at home—occasionally at the same time.

Link: A Scanner Darkly

Short of participating in a genocide, how can you know what it’s like to be thoughtless on the level of Adolf Eichmann? Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones makes the attempt by immersing its reader in a dense, intensely readable marsh of information.

There are a lot of shocking things about Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a novel about the destruction of the European Jews that is narrated by a matricidal SS officer named Max Aue, whose greatest joy is having anal sex with his twin sister; but the one that shocks deepest, and longest, is how easily the novel draws you in. I read the book in French (Littell was born in America in 1967, but grew up in France; he wrote The Kindly Ones in French) a couple of years ago and again this winter in Charlotte Mandell’s adroit English translation. Both times, I found myself looking forward to the moment when I was done with other business and could get back to reading about Max Aue and his grisly travels.

I am not the only one: the book has sold well over a million copies in Europe, and won the Prix Goncourt, France’s biggest literary prize. As I write this essay, it’s too soon to say if The Kindly Ones will be a big seller in the United States, but some omens are good. When the English translation was published in March of this year, Michael Korda wrote in the Daily Beast, “I guarantee you, if you read this book to the end, and if you have any kind of taste at all, you won’t be able to put it down for a moment—lay in snacks and drinks!” Yes, by all means, if you can keep them down. Reading The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers. The question I want to ask is, why?

Maybe the place to begin is near the end of The Kindly Ones, when Aue finds himself in a marsh:

We made our way through a little meadow covered with tall, thick grass, sodden and bent; beyond stretched out more sheets of water; there was a little padlocked hunter’s cabin, also standing in water. The snow had completely disappeared. There was no use sticking to the trees, our boots sank into the water and the mud, the wet ground was covered with rotten leaves that hid quagmires. Here and there a little island of firm land gave us courage. But farther on it became completely impossible again; the trees grew on isolated clumps or in the water itself, the strips of earth between the puddles were also flooded, wading was difficult, we had to give up and go back to the dyke.

This isn’t by any means the toughest terrain Aue has crossed. In the fall of 1941 he slogged through “black, thick mud” from Kiev to Kharkov, following the Wehrmacht’s advance into the U.S.S.R.; in the winter of 1943 he was skulking in the rubble of Stalingrad; he has seen the death camps at Auschwitz and survived the Allied bombing of Berlin. Max Aue witnesses every phase of the Final Solution; in fact, this witnessing is the reason for his existence. Littell, in an interview withLe Monde des Livres, describes Aue as a “roving X-ray, a scanner.” He exists so Littell can attempt a human answer to the questions that still loom over the history of the Holocaust: why? And how?

I want to set those questions, and Aue’s answers, aside for a moment, to talk about this relatively unimportant moment in which Aue, along with his friend Thomas and their driver, Piontek, are trying to rejoin the German lines. What can we say about it? Well, for one thing, the little cabin is remarkable. By the time Aue gets to the marsh, the book is almost over, and we know, in gross, anyway, how the story will end: the Germans are going to lose. And yet Aue takes the time to see the cabin, to remember it, and to describe it. This is a literary strategy known, I believe, as “realism,” but there’s something hallucinatory about Aue’s refusal to sort important from unimportant information, as though he really were a “scanner” and not a person. (Littell has refused to sell the film rights to The Kindly Ones, on the grounds that it would be impossible to make the book into a film, but the effect is distinctly cinematic.) In this scene, the beneficiary of Aue’s X-ray vision is the landscape, which rolls past as if in real time; Aue is trudging, and you, the reader, have to trudge along with him.

[…] The preternatural quality of Max Aue’s memory has been remarked on before; it’s the basis for one of the most telling and often-cited criticisms of The Kindly Ones.Claude Lanzmann, who directed the film Shoah, wrote that

Littell’s “hero” speaks torrentially for 900 pages, this man who doesn’t know what a memory is remembers absolutely everything. One has the right to ask, is Aue flesh and blood? Is Aue a man? Does Aue exist? He speaks like a book, like all the history books Littell has read. At the moment when the last witnesses of the Shoah are disappearing, and the Jews are anxious because memory is becoming History, Jonathan Littell flips the terms of the opposition, and gives his memoryless SS “hero” History as memory.

The danger of this procedure is that it will undermine the value of witnessing, precisely because it’s more complete than any eyewitness account. No one could have seen as much as Max Aue, but there’s something impossibly seductive about the idea that someone could have seen it all, that we could have both the totality of History and the authority of presence. Lanzmann fears that people will stop watching Shoah, stop reading Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, and pick up The Kindly Ones instead, that the fiction will in time replace the fact.[2] It’s a possibility worth fearing; but let’s assume for a moment that Jonathan Littell is not an idiot—pace the opinion of at least one German critic[3]—and that he knows what risk he runs by this procedure of turning History into memory. Why would he do it?

Here we come back to the question of how. How could the Final Solution have taken place? As Lanzmann observes, the SS don’t speak; it’s impossible to get them to tell their side of the story. Max Aue does speak, but the answer he gives is as predictable as it is unsatisfying: he is “just like you,” and people like you are capable of carrying out even the most horrific acts when the circumstances demand it. “[I]f you are an American, consider your little Vietnam adventure,” he writes,

which so traumatized your fellow citizens. You lost fifty thousand troops there in ten years: that’s the equivalent of a little less than three days and two hours’ worth of dead on the Eastern Front, or of some thirteen days, twenty-one hours, and twenty-five minutes’ worth of dead Jews. I obviously am not including the Vietnamese dead; since you never speak of them, in your books or TV programs, they must not count for much to you. Yet you killed forty of them for every single one of your own dead, a fine effort even compared to our own, and one that certainly speaks for the value of technical progress.

Never mind that the Vietnam war was conducted under an idea, however absurd, of strategic gains and losses, whereas the Final Solution had the distressing and unfathomable quality of being an end in itself; in a total war there can be no civilians (this is Aue’s reasoning), only the fight of one mass against another. In such a fight every participant is equally guilty: the killers with blood on their hands and the supply officers who fuel the trucks. You might have died rather than shoot, but would you have died rather than pump gasoline?

This is an argument that got tested at Nuremberg without a lot of success; it does not compel belief. That’s what Aue’s prodigious memory is for. In the middle of the novel, and the war, Max Aue is sent to inspect the concentration camps of Poland, to see what he can do about getting the inmates better rations, a quixotic errand. When he gets to the Lublin camp, things turn out to be complicated, not only because Aue’s mission is incompatible with the purpose of the camp, but also, and above all, because it’s hard to figure out who’s in charge. “Out of about four hundred and fifty men, not counting the Hiwis [local recruits],” a deputy explains,

almost a hundred were assigned to us by the Führer’s Chancellery. Almost all our camp commanders are from there. Tactically, they’re under control of the Einsatz, but administratively, they depend on the Chancellery. They supervise everything having to do with salaries, leaves, promotions, and so on. Apparently it’s a special agreement between the Reichsführer and Reichsleiter Bouhler. Some of those men aren’t even members of theAllgemeine-SS or of the Party. But they’re all veterans of the Reich’s euthanasia centers; when most of those centers were closed, some of the personnel, with Wirth at their head, were transferred here so the Einsatz could profit from their experience.

Get it? Not quite? Good. The enormous quantity of information contained in The Kindly Ones (you could call the novel “encyclopedic,” but, given its narrator’s subjective bias, “wikipedic” might be a better way of putting it) serves not only to enchant, but also to distract. With so many administrative structures in play, so many names and ranks and acronyms and badges and bosses to keep track of, how can you think about what KL Lublin[4] was for? The more immediate, and more satisfying because more achievable, task consists in doing what Aue does: sussing hierarchies, admiring or deploring moves made in the game of Nazi power.

It’s thinking like this that got Eichmann in trouble. Hannah Arendt, reporting on the SS officers’ 1961 trial for the New Yorker, observed that “except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, [Eichmann] had no motives at all.” Max Aue, who meets Eichmann again and again over the course of The Kindly Ones, puts it more bluntly: “He had a very harsh attitude but at bottom it was the same to him whether or not the Jews were killed, the only thing that counted, for him, was to show what he could do, to prove his worth, and also to use the abilities he had developed, for the rest of it, he didn’t give a fuck, either about industry or about the gas chambers for that matter, the only thing he did give a fuck about was that no one fucked with him.…” Eichmann was guilty of mass murder, but he is infamous for thoughtlessness, for not giving a fuck. As Arendt says, “He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.

Call it the danger of Too Much Information: if your mind is occupied with bureaucratic turf wars, how can you make room to think about what’s happening in the crematoriums that smoke just a few hundred meters away, polluting the air with the smell of burning flesh? Especially when the gulf between the one kind of awareness and the other is so vast: the first belongs to the world of information, whereas the second belongs to the order of knowledge. You can have all the information in the world about the camps—Eichmann had much of it—butknowing them is something else entirely.

Now think for a moment about the complicated, perverse thing which The Kindly Ones does to you, the reader. Anyone could tell you that information and knowledge are two different things, that it’s possible to be ignorant even in the thick of the facts. Arendt could tell you that; her remark that Eichmann’s self-important ignorance illustrates the banality of evil has itself become a banality. But how, short of participating in a genocide, can you know what it’s like to be thoughtless? This is the door to which Max Aue holds (or rather is) the key. The book abounds with markers of lived experience: the icy waters of the marsh, the “insomniac dead” who lie scattered by the side of the road to Kiev, the diarrhea and vomiting fits that plague Aue all through the war, and afterward. These signs draw you in; they give you the feeling of knowing, but all you’re getting is information. The effect is weirdly stupefying—which is, perhaps, how Eichmann felt, after a while.

Link: The Danger for Mankind is Me and You

"The Kindly Ones" by Jonathan Littell. Harper Perennial, 2009. 992pp.

Written in French by a bilingual Jewish-American, featuring a philosophical SS officer who exterminates Jews in Russia, Poland and Kiev while believing he inhabits a Greek tragedy, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones seeks to approach the Holocaust through the medium of a European novel of ideas. So it’s easy to see why it has caused such a fuss. Awarded the Prix Goncourt and the Academie Française prize in France when it appeared in 2006; condemned by a battery of German historians; decried as “grotesque” in the US; and already dividing the critics in Britain, this novel gleefully squares up to the questions we pose of all creative work that draws on the Holocaust for material.

Can our capacity for empathetic understanding be usefully excited to remind us of the horrors suffered by the Jews in Europe? Or should we agree, with Adorno, that “through aesthetic principles or stylisation… the unimaginable ordeal still appears as if it had some ulterior purpose”, and so, is “transfigured and stripped of some of its horror”?

The Kindly Ones is the memoir of Maximilien Aue, first encountered as the proprietor of a contemporary lace-making factory in France, who loses no time in letting the reader know what not to expect from his war stories. “I probably did go a little far towards the end, but by that point I was no longer entirely myself,” he muses, before embarking on a sequence of blood-chilling aperçus on the principles of Nazi extermination. “In most cases the man standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying, dead or dying, at the bottom of the pit.

“Total war means there is no such thing as a civilian, and the only difference between a Jewish child gassed or shot and a German child burned alive in an air raid is one of method.” He saves his trump card for the peroration: “You should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did… The real danger for mankind is me, is you.”

And so begins a sort of whistle-stop tour of Nazi atrocity, which sees Aue posted, with suspicious fortuity, to the pivotal areas and events in the wartime European theatre. He stands and reports as the Einsatzgruppen embark on their bungled and vicious campaign of extermination during the German invasion of Russia. He assists at the massacre of Babi Yar in Ukraine, in which nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered in two days. In the Caucasus he attempts to establish the ethnicity of various mountain tribes, before being wounded in the siege of Stalingrad. Later he ends up at Auschwitz, tasked with increasing “efficiency of production”, then he returns to besieged Berlin to witness first-hand the fall of the Reich.

The novel relies on jarring contrasts and improbable juxtapositions for its best effects. The passages of violence have a cold-burning, accretive barbarity that reminds less of Tolstoy (to whom Littell has been compared) than the sexualised battlescapes of the French writer Pierre Guyotat, as amid the gore and excrements, moments of ghastly banal clarity surface. “The attitude of the Jews didn’t make things any easier,” reports Aue. “The men got blood and brains in their faces, they were complaining.” Elsewhere, though, the style becomes arresting and coolly beautiful as it annotates the tiniest of details: a duck stooping in flight to land on water, or the snow piling on a roof.

But The Kindly Ones is not simply a product of that vexed genre, docu-fiction. In addition to Aue’s role as detached observer of human catastrophe, Littell furnishes him with a complex erotic back story that in some respects mirrors the Oresteia: his life is dominated by an incestuous relationship with his twin sister in childhood, after which he forswears women and takes to sodomy in an attempt to “feel almost everything she felt”. In a moment of amnesiac possession he murders his mother and her lover, subsequently finding himself pursued by a pair of sinister avenging detectives (The Kindly Ones of the title are the Eumenides, the propitiatory term for the Greek Furies). Combined with his obsessive interest in bodily functions and his tendency to speechify, this all makes for a confusing, hallucinated mix.

Whether it all works or not will depend on the reader. Much criticism has focused on the character of Aue, whose sexual interests and dedicated classicism threaten to draw the clichéd parallel between Nazism and perversity, refuting his claims to be “just like us”. But The Kindly Onesnever sets out to be the tale of a Nazi Everyman, a story of the banality of evil: it leaves that to the wealth of documentary testimony and factual commentary on the war. Instead, it is a magnificently artificial project in character construction, a highly literary and provocative attempt to create a character various enough to match the many discontinuous realities of the apocalyptic Nazi world-view. The result is a sprawling, daring, loose-ended monster of a book, one that justifies its towering subject matter by its persistent and troubling refusal to offer easy answers and to make satisfying sense. It feels very important indeed.

Link: Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine

The students were the first to protest against the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych on the Maidan, the central square in Kiev, last November. These were the Ukrainians with the most to lose, the young people who unreflectively thought of themselves as Europeans and who wished for themselves a life, and a Ukrainian homeland, that were European. Many of them were politically on the left, some of them radically so. After years of negotiation and months of promises, their government, under President Yanukovych, had at the last moment failed to sign a major trade agreement with the European Union.

When the riot police came and beat the students in late November, a new group, the Afghan veterans, came to the Maidan. These men of middle age, former soldiers and officers of the Red Army, many of them bearing the scars of battlefield wounds, came to protect “their children,” as they put it. They didn’t mean their own sons and daughters: they meant the best of the youth, the pride and future of the country. After the Afghan veterans came many others, tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, now not so much in favor of Europe but in defense of decency.

What does it mean to come to the Maidan? The square is located close to some of the major buildings of government, and is now a traditional site of protest. Interestingly, the word maidan exists in Ukrainian but not in Russian, but even people speaking Russian use it because of its special implications. In origin it is just the Arabic word for “square,” a public place. But a maidan now means in Ukrainian what the Greek wordagora means in English: not just a marketplace where people happen to meet, but a place where they deliberately meet, precisely in order to deliberate, to speak, and to create a political society. During the protests the word maidan has come to mean the act of public politics itself, so that for example people who use their cars to organize public actions and protect other protestors are called the automaidan.

On January 16, the Ukrainian government, headed by President Yanukovych, tried to put an end to Ukrainian civil society. A series of laws passed hastily and without following normal procedure did away with freedom of speech and assembly, and removed the few remaining checks on executive authority. This was intended to turn Ukraine into a dictatorship and to make all participants in the Maidan, by then probably numbering in the low millions, into criminals. The result was that the protests, until then entirely peaceful, became violent. Yanukovych lost support, even in his political base in the southeast, near the Russian border.

After weeks of responding peacefully to arrests and beatings by the riot police, many Ukrainians had had enough. A fraction of the protesters, some but by no means all representatives of the political right and far right, decided to take the fight to the police. Among them were members of the far-right party Svoboda and a new conglomeration of nationalists who call themselves the Right Sector (Pravyi Sektor). Young men, some of them from right-wing groups and others not, tried to take by force the public spaces claimed by the riot police. Young Jewish men formed their own combat group, orsotnia, to take the fight to the authorities.

Although Yanukovych rescinded most of the dictatorship laws, lawless violence by the regime, which started in November, continued into February. Members of the opposition were shot and killed, or hosed down in freezing temperatures to die of hypothermia. Others were tortured and left in the woods to die.

During the first two weeks of February, the Yanukovych regime sought to restore some of the dictatorship laws through decrees, bureaucratic shortcuts, and new legislation. On February 18, an announced parliamentary debate on constitutional reform was abruptly canceled. Instead, the government sent thousands of riot police against the protesters of Kiev. Hundreds of people were wounded by rubber bullets, tear gas, and truncheons. Dozens were killed.

The future of this protest movement will be decided by Ukrainians. And yet it began with the hope that Ukraine could one day join the European Union, an aspiration that for many Ukrainians means something like the rule of law, the absence of fear, the end of corruption, the social welfare state, and free markets without intimidation from syndicates controlled by the president.

The course of the protest has very much been influenced by the presence of a rival project, based in Moscow, called the Eurasian Union. This is an international commercial and political union that does not yet exist but that is to come into being in January 2015. The Eurasian Union, unlike the European Union, is not based on the principles of the equality and democracy of member states, the rule of law, or human rights.

On the contrary, it is a hierarchical organization, which by its nature seems unlikely to admit any members that are democracies with the rule of law and human rights. Any democracy within the Eurasian Union would pose a threat to Putin’s rule in Russia. Putin wants Ukraine in his Eurasian Union, which means that Ukraine must be authoritarian, which means that the Maidan must be crushed.

The dictatorship laws of January 16 were obviously based on Russian models, and were proposed by Ukrainian legislators with close ties to Moscow. They seem to have been Russia’s condition for financial support of the Yanukovych regime. Before they were announced, Putin offered Ukraine a large loan and promised reductions in the price of Russian natural gas. But in January the result was not a capitulation to Russia. The people of the Maidan defended themselves, and the protests continue. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess; only the Kremlin expresses certainty about what it all means.

The protests in the Maidan, we are told again and again by Russian propaganda and by the Kremlin’s friends in Ukraine, mean the return of National Socialism to Europe. The Russian foreign minister, in Munich, lectured the Germans about their support of people who salute Hitler. The Russian media continually make the claim that the Ukrainians who protest are Nazis. Naturally, it is important to be attentive to the far right in Ukrainian politics and history. It is still a serious presence today, although less important than the far right in France, Austria, or the Netherlands. Yet it is the Ukrainian regime rather than its opponents that resorts to anti-Semitism, instructing its riot police that the opposition is led by Jews. In other words, the Ukrainian government is telling itself that its opponents are Jews and us that its opponents are Nazis.

The strange thing about the claim from Moscow is the political ideology of those who make it. The Eurasian Union is the enemy of the European Union, not just in strategy but in ideology. The European Union is based on a historical lesson: that the wars of the twentieth century were based on false and dangerous ideas, National Socialism and Stalinism, which must be rejected and indeed overcome in a system guaranteeing free markets, free movement of people, and the welfare state. Eurasianism, by contrast, is presented by its advocates as the opposite of liberal democracy.

The Eurasian ideology draws an entirely different lesson from the twentieth century. Founded around 2001 by the Russian political scientist Aleksandr Dugin, it proposes the realization of National Bolshevism. Rather than rejecting totalitarian ideologies, Eurasianism calls upon politicians of the twenty-first century to draw what is useful from both fascism and Stalinism. Dugin’s major work, The Foundations of Geopolitics, published in 1997, follows closely the ideas of Carl Schmitt, the leading Nazi political theorist. Eurasianism is not only the ideological source of the Eurasian Union, it is also the creed of a number of people in the Putin administration, and the moving force of a rather active far-right Russian youth movement. For years Dugin has openly supported the division and colonization of Ukraine.

The point man for Eurasian and Ukrainian policy in the Kremlin is Sergei Glazyev, an economist who like Dugin tends to combine radical nationalism with nostalgia for Bolshevism. He was a member of the Communist Party and a Communist deputy in the Russian parliament before cofounding a far-right party called Rodina, or Motherland. In 2005 some of its deputies signed a petition to the Russian prosecutor general asking that all Jewish organizations be banned from Russia.

Later that year Motherland was banned from taking part in further elections after complaints that its advertisements incited racial hatred. The most notorious showed dark-skinned people eating watermelon and throwing the rinds to the ground, then called for Russians to clean up their cities. Glazyev’s book Genocide: Russia and the New World Order claims that the sinister forces of the “new world order” conspired against Russia in the 1990s to bring about economic policies that amounted to “genocide.” This book was published in English by Lyndon LaRouche’s magazineExecutive Intelligence Review with a preface by LaRouche. Today Executive Intelligence Review echoes Kremlin propaganda, spreading the word in English that Ukrainian protesters have carried out a Nazi coup and started a civil war.

The populist media campaign for the Eurasian Union is now in the hands of Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of the most important talk show in Russia, and since December also the director of the state-run Russian media conglomerate designed to form national public opinion. Best known for saying that gays who die in car accidents should have their hearts cut from their bodies and incinerated, Kiselyov has taken Putin’s campaign against gay rights and transformed it into a weapon against European integration. Thus when the then German foreign minister, who is gay, visited Kiev in December and met with Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight champion and opposition politician, Kiselyov dismissed Klitschko as a gay icon. According to the Russian foreign minister, the exploitation of sexual politics is now to be an open weapon in the struggle against the “decadence” of the European Union.

Following the same strategy, Yanukovych’s government claimed, entirely falsely, that the price of closer relations with the European Union was the recognition of gay marriage in Ukraine. Kiselyov is quite open about the Russian media strategy toward the Maidan: to “apply the correct political technology,” then “bring it to the point of overheating” and bring to bear “the magnifying glass of TV and the Internet.”

Why exactly do people with such views think they can call other people fascists? And why does anyone on the Western left take them seriously? One line of reasoning seems to run like this: the Russians won World War II, and therefore can be trusted to spot Nazis. Much is wrong with this. World War II on the eastern front was fought chiefly in what was then Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus, not in Soviet Russia. Five percent of Russia was occupied by the Germans; all of Ukraine was occupied by the Germans. Apart from the Jews, whose suffering was by far the worst, the main victims of Nazi policies were not Russians but Ukrainians and Belarusians. There was no Russian army fighting in World War II, but rather a Soviet Red Army. Its soldiers were disproportionately Ukrainian, since it took so many losses in Ukraine and recruited from the local population. The army group that liberated Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front.

The other source of purported Eurasian moral legitimacy seems to be this: since the representatives of the Putin regime only very selectively distanced themselves from Stalinism, they are therefore reliable inheritors of Soviet history, and should be seen as the automatic opposite of Nazis, and therefore to be trusted to oppose the far right.

Again, much is wrong about this. World War II began with an alliance between Hitler and Stalin in 1939. It ended with the Soviet Union expelling surviving Jews across its own border into Poland. After the founding of the State of Israel, Stalin began associating Soviet Jews with a world capitalist conspiracy, and undertook a campaign of arrests, deportations, and murders of leading Jewish writers. When he died in 1953 he was preparing a larger campaign against Jews.

After Stalin’s death communism took on a more and more ethnic coloration, with people who wished to revive its glories claiming that its problem was that it had been spoiled by Jews. The ethnic purification of the communist legacy is precisely the logic of National Bolshevism, which is the foundational ideology of Eurasianism today. Putin himself is an admirer of the philosopher Ivan Ilin, who wanted Russia to be a nationalist dictatorship.

What does it mean when the wolf cries wolf? Most obviously, propagandists in Moscow and Kiev take us for fools—which by many indications is quite justified.

More subtly, what this campaign does is attempt to reduce the social tensions in a complex country to a battle of symbols about the past. Ukraine is not a theater for the historical propaganda of others or a puzzle from which pieces can be removed. It is a major European country whose citizens have important cultural and economic ties with both the European Union and Russia. To set its own course, Ukraine needs normal public debate, the restoration of parliamentary democracy, and workable relations with all of its neighbors. Ukraine is full of sophisticated and ambitious people. If people in the West become caught up in the question of whether they are largely Nazis or not, then they may miss the central issues in the present crisis.

In fact, Ukrainians are in a struggle against both the concentration of wealth and the concentration of armed force in the hands of Viktor Yanukovych and his close allies. The protesters might be seen as setting an example of courage for Americans of both the left and the right. Ukrainians make real sacrifices for the hope of joining the European Union. Might there be something to be learned from that among Euroskeptics in London or elsewhere? This is a dialogue that is not taking place.

The history of the Holocaust is part of our own public discourse, our agora, or maidan. The current Russian attempt to manipulate the memory of the Holocaust is so blatant and cynical that those who are so foolish to fall for it will one day have to ask themselves just how, and in the service of what, they have been taken in. If fascists take over the mantle of antifascism, the memory of the Holocaust will itself be altered. It will be more difficult in the future to refer to the Holocaust in the service of any good cause, be it the particular one of Jewish history or the general one of human rights.

Link: Competing Constructions of Masculinity in Ancient Greece

Abstract: Scholars often speak of ancient Greek masculinity and manhood as if there was a single, monolithic, simple conception. I will show that the ancient Greeks, like us today, had competing models or constructions of gender and that what it meant to be a man was different in different contexts. I will focus on three constructions of the masculine gender in ancient (classical and post-classical) Greece: the Athenian civic model, the Spartan martial model, and the Stoic philosophical model. I will focus on how these share certain commonalities, how they differ in significant ways, how each makes sense in terms of larger ideological contexts and needs, and, finally how constructions of masculinities today draw from all three. 

What did it mean to be manly or masculine in ancient Greece? There is, of course, a difference between being male and being manly or masculine. The former indicates biological sex; the latter refers to performative gender roles.The contrast between sex and gender is visible when we say that some men act more manly and others more effeminately. The same applies to women. But what constitutes manliness or masculinity seems to vary, at least in some degree, from culture to culture. The aim of this paper is to understand how the Greeks understood masculinity given the variation of cultural and ideological identity evident in the ancient Greek world of the classical and Hellenistic eras. Scholars often speak of Greek masculinity as if there was a universal ideal of masculinity shared by all Greeks. However, I will show that individual cities, cultures, and philosophies often define masculinity differently and emphasize different aspects of masculine behavior. I argue that masculinity was not a fixed, uniform, monolithic, or homogenous normative concept; manliness was a more fluid concept, full of tensions and inconsistencies. In short, there were different ways for a man to express his maleness in late Classical and early Hellenistic Greece and hence it is better to speak of ‘masculinities’ and not ‘masculinity’ when discussing gender in ancient Greece.

There have been numerous studies over the last half-century on the topic of women in Greek antiquity and these studies have significantly advanced our understanding of Hellenic culture and society. Much less work has been done, until very recently, on Greek masculinity.This seems to be because scholars thought that there was not much to say on the topic. Masculinity did not seem to be problematic. However, feminist readings of classical literature and history and recent work in gender studies have taught scholars to ask new questions while re-examining familiar ground. This paper, therefore, is influenced and informed by research in ancient women’s studies.

When studying the lives of ancient women, the greatest challenge comes from the scarcity of genuine female voices. Nearly all of the literary remains that have come down from antiquity were written by men. Ancient masculinity scholarship faces the opposite problem: there are too many male voices and the message of masculinity is diffused in the sources. Moreover, we can understand male attitudes to ancient Greek femininity because the male authors and critics saw the feminine gender as problematic and in many cases dangerous. Masculinity, however, was not seen to be problematic; instead it seemed to be intuitive and obvious. Therefore, there is not much direct analysis of the concept in our sources, and consequently, we are frequently forced to read between the lines. When masculinity is discussed, it usually arises when an individual fails to perform masculinity to the standards of the community. In such cases of failed masculinity as well as in exhortations for men to be more manly or less effeminate, we get glimpses of the normative paradigm behind the ideal of masculinity.

Perhaps the most direct and efficient way to demonstrate that masculinity was not a rigid and monolithic normative standard in ancient Greece is to compare different or contrasting ways of life that are moderately well documented from Classical and Hellenistic Greece. I have selected three constructions of ideal manhood from cultures and ideologies in ancient (classical and post-classical) Greece that were recognized as having competing ideals: Athenian, Spartan, and Stoic. The first two are political and cultural identities, while Stoicism represents a philosophical perspective.

During the 5th century, the Athenians and Spartans were the two most powerful political and cultural powers in Greece. They were also seen as contrasting or competing ways of being Greek. Thucydides described Athens as an urban, metropolitan center that maintained its power by its navy and allies and was ruled by a direct and radical democracy. The Athenians were presented as individualistic, capitalistic, pragmatic, greedy, and perhaps ambitious. Athens was the place to go for comfort, progressive ideas, luxury, and wealth. In contrast Sparta was more rural — a collection of small villages with little interest in civic infrastructure or material culture. Sparta was primarily a land based, military society with little interest in commercial development. Its value system prioritized the collective over the individual, and discipline and tradition over innovation and self-expression. They lacked coinage making acquisition of wealth more difficult and developed a highly intrusive constitution that became the model for several early utopian political theories.

Politically and socially, Sparta was conservative: slow to act, slow to speak. They feared outsiders and innovation. The state power rested primarily in a counsel of elders (the Gerousia), two hereditary kings, and five annually elected Ephors who represented the assembly of elite warrior-citizens and checked the power of the kings.

Athens, on the other hand, was a radical democracy. Every adult male citizen was expected to vote, serve on juries, and participate directly in the running of the state. Individualism and freethinking were, if not always encouraged, at least tolerated in most instances. In contrast to Sparta, which was wary of tourists and strangers, Athens claimed to be an open society and an exemplar (paradeigma) for all Greece.

The final perspective that we will examine is the ancient Stoics. The Stoa was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the 4th century BCE and remained centered in Athens until the 2nd century BCE. The Stoics bring in a non-statist, philosophical perspective that internalizes masculinity. They serve as a further ideological contrast to both the Athenians and Spartans. The inclusion of Stoic philosophy is also useful since in the early phase of the school Stoicism was primarily an Athenian philosophy. Therefore, if Stoic masculinity varies in a significant way from the standard Athenian construction, which I argue it does, it would imply that the self-fashioning of gender norms was a real option in the 4th and 5th centuries and beyond.

In order to identify the different constructions of masculinity present in Sparta, Athens, and Stoicism, I shall examine four basic topics or central themes associated with the performance of masculinity in order to highlight points of difference. These topics are courage, patriarchy, politics, and sexuality.I hope to demonstrate that there existed significant differences between expectations and ideals of manhood among Athenians, Spartans, and Stoics to justify speaking of ancient Greek masculinities.