Sunshine Recorder

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.

Valiant Hearts E3 Trailer

World War I. The years between 1914 and 1918 were some of the most devastating to the history of mankind, and through the destruction of war, millions of lives were left broken and irreparable.

Valiant Hearts is the story of crossed destinies and a broken love in a world torn apart by this very war. Four unsung heroes will try to rise above the tragedies strewn across Europe and band together with their trusty companion dog, Walt, in search of their loved ones.

In Valiant Hearts, the lives of these characters are inextricably drawn together over the course of the story. Friendship, love, sacrifice and tragedy befall each one as they help each other to retain their humanity against the horrors of war. Experience this story on June 25th, 2014 on the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC platforms.

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. 

Link: Now is Not Forever: The Ancient Recent Past

Sometimes the Internet surprises us with the past or, to be more precise, its own past. The other day my social media feed started to show the same clip over and over. It was one I had seen years before and forgotten about, back from the bottom of that overwhelming ocean of content available to us at any given moment. Why was it reappearing now, I wondered?

That’s a hard question to answer under any circumstances. My teenage daughter regularly shows me Internet discoveries that date from the mid-2000s. To her, they are fresh; to me, a reminder of just how difficult it is to predict what the storms of the information age will turn up. In the case of the clip I started seeing again the other day, however, the reemergence seemed less than random.

It’s a two-minute feature from a San Francisco television station about the electronic future of journalism, but from way back in 1981, long before the Internet as we know it came into focus. While there is a wide range of film and television from that era readily accessible to us, much of which can be consumed without being struck dumb by its datedness — Scarface or the first Star Wars trilogy, to name two obvious examples — its surviving news broadcasts seem uncanny. Factor in the subject matter of this one, predicting a future that already feels past to us, and the effect is greatly enhanced.

The more I kept seeing this clip in my feed, though, the more clear it became that its uncanniness didn’t just derive from the original feature’s depiction of primitive modems and computer monitors — and a Lady Di hairsyle — but also the fact that it had returned from the depths of the Internet to remind us, once more, that we did see this world coming.

The information age is doing strange things to our sense of history. If you drive in the United States, particularly in warm-weather places like California or Florida, you won’t have to look too hard to see cars from the 1980s still on the road. But a computer from that era seems truly ancient, as out of sync with our own times as a horse and buggy.

Stranger still is the feeling of datedness that pervades the Internet’s own history. For someone my daughter’s age, imagining life before YouTube is as unsettling a prospect as imagining life before indoor plumbing. And yet, even though she was only seven when the site debuted, she was already familiar with the Internet before then.

But it isn’t just young people who feel cut off from the Internet that existed prior to contemporary social media. Even though I can go on the Wayback Machine to check out sites I was visiting in the 1990s; even though I contributed to one of the first Internet publications, Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life, and can still access its content with ease; even though I know firsthand what it was like before broadband, when I would wait minutes for a single news story to load, my memories still seem to fail me. I remember, but dimly. I can recall experiences from pre-school in vivid detail, yet struggle to flesh out my Internet past from a decade ago, before I started using Gmail.

What the clip that resurfaced the other day makes clear is that history is more subjective than ever. Some parts seem to be moving at more or less the same pace that they did decades or even centuries ago. But others, particularly those that focus on computer technology, appear ten or even a hundred times as fast. If you don’t believe me, try picking up the mobile phone you used in 2008.

When he was working on the Passagenwerk, his sprawling project centered on nineteenth-century Parisian shopping arcades, Walter Benjamin made special note of how outdated those proto-malls seemed, less than a century after they had first appeared. These days, the depths of the Internet are full of such places, dormant pages that unnerve us with their “ancient” character, even though they are less than a decade old.

As Mark Fisher brilliant explains in his book Capitalist Realism, we live at a time when it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But there are plenty of people who have just as much difficulty imagining the end of Facebook, even though some of them were on MySpace and Friendster before it. That’s what makes evidence like the clip I’ve been discussing here so important. We need to be reminded that we are capable of living different lives, that we have, in fact, already lived them, so that we can turn our attention to living the lives we actually want to lead.

Link: Culture War: How the Nazi Party Recast Nietzsche

"Fitting Nietzsche’s ideas into a single worldview was no simple matter, but this was precisely the mission of the ‘Völkischer Beobachter’’s editors and writers: to make even complex ideas such as Nietzsche’s appear to coordinate with the main tenets of Nazism."

High culture played an important political role in Hitler’s Germany. References to music, history, philosophy, and art formed a key part of the Nazi strategy to reverse the symptoms of decline perceived after World War I. Allusions to great creators and their works were used as propaganda to remind the Volk to love and worship their nation. In the words of the French scholar Eric Michaud, author of The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany, the Nazis used culture “to make the genius of the race visible to that race.” And to cap off these images of a great national culture, the Nazis heralded Adolf Hitler, the Führer, as an artistic leader.

As Michaud put it: “Hitler presented himself not only as a ‘man of the people’ and a soldier with frontline experience (Fronterlebnis), but also and above all as a man whose artistic experience constituted the best guarantee of his ability to mediate the Volksgeist and turn it into the ‘perfect Third Reich.’”

The revival of a culturally rich Germany as the so-called Third Reich, however, would be achieved only once those whom the Nazis considered its enemies were all destroyed. So war and culture went together in the National Socialist agenda. Art, said Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, “is no mere peacetime amusement, but a sharp spiritual weapon for war.”

To understand how Nazis employed culture to define and promote their broadest ambitions, I looked to German mass media, in particular the main Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, whose cultural pages I examined for the years 1920 to 1945. While the Nazi co-optation of many great figures in the Western intellectual tradition during these eventful years proves revealing, one need look no further than the party’s claim on Friedrich Nietzsche to see how culture became entwined in the discourse of politics and war in the pages of Hitler’s foremost propaganda outlet.

Fitting Nietzsche’s ideas into a single worldview was no simple matter, but this was precisely the mission of theVölkischer Beobachter’s editors and writers: to make even complex ideas such as Nietzsche’s appear to coordinate with the main tenets of Nazism. Looking into the shifting terms with which the daily newspaper presented Nietzsche helps us toward understanding how the Nazi party attempted to place his biography and writings—along with the tradition of Kultur as a whole—at the service of the Nazi outlook.

In addressing the “Germanness” of Nietzsche, however, the cultural politicians of the party faced some difficulties. The newspaper did not try to verify Nietzsche’s racial origins—as it did for many other Western creators, including and especially Wagner and Beethoven—despite the fact that he occasionally claimed to be of Polish heritage. But it did have to confront indications that the philosopher rejected nineteenth-century trends of nationalistic identification.

As one contributor to the Völkischer Beobachter wrote, there is “one important point in Nietzsche’s mental attitude on which even his friends have remained silent, from which they tried to distance themselves as much as possible: this is the matter of Nietzsche’s attitude toward Germanness and the state.” The philosopher, according to the paper, had seen with “sharp eyes” that while the Second Reich had been formed, it still “remained a shell without content” under Otto von Bismarck’s Realpolitik. To him, nationalism was the “illness of the century” because it “attempted to hide its emptiness.” In his words, “Nationalism as it is understood today is a dogma that requires limitation.”

But the point to keep in mind, according to the Völkischer Beobachter, was the qualifying phrase: “as it is understood today.” Nietzsche’s opinions about the German state could be understood only with reference to this phrase—that is, as critiques of his own specific time, not as categorical rejections of German nationalism.

This opened the way for the newspaper to present Nietzsche as a fervent patriot and strong representative of “Germanness.” In fact, the paper reminded, Nietzsche actually said of himself that “I am perhaps more German than the Germans of today.” And he valued the “earnest, manly, stern, and daring German spirit.” He knew that “there was still bravery, particularly German bravery,” that is, “inwardly something different than the élan of our deplorable neighbors.” Compared with the French essence, in particular, he was “consistently, strongly, and happily conscious of the virtues” of the German character. Above all, Nietzsche held that “it is German unity in the highest sense which we are striving for more passionately than for political reunification—the unity of the German spirit and life.”

Very few others “saw things so clearly” in those days, said the Völkischer Beobachter. As if on a mission to confirm the philosopher’s Germanness, another contributor traveled to Sils-Maria, wandered the region, and ruminated on passages Nietzsche had written there. The landscape, Ernst Nickell reflected, is “consecrated by German fate and German tragedy.” Nietzsche “needed this landscape; he had to stand near the highest things and the firmament”—because he was “German despite everything.”

Nietzsche was, however, rather ambivalent about politics, having called himself the “last anti-political German of them all.” But Nazi propaganda rigorously promoted the view that the primary creative impulse was as much political as it was artistic. The picture of Nietzsche thus had to be corrected to bring out his political side.

The Völkischer Beobachter admitted that “we find here at first view a sharp contrast with today’s [National Socialist] thinking”—but only at first glance. According to the paper, what Nietzsche understood by the term “state” was completely different from “our idea of the state today.” For him, politicization meant democratization, i.e., the greatest good for the greatest number. This Nietzsche hated, the paper said, because “general prosperity would make mankind too lazy to invest powerful energy in a great individual— in a genius.” That is why Nietzsche wanted “as little state as possible.” A volkish state, directed according to Nazi ideology, however, would revive the genius of the nation, and therefore earn Nietzsche’s support.

The paper acknowledged that Nietzsche had other views that seemed “the complete opposite of our views today.” For instance, he viewed culture and the state as antagonists. This, perhaps, should have made him the oddest of conscripts to the Nazi campaign to subordinate culture to politics and war, but that was not the party line. Such ideas of Nietzsche’s, the Völkischer Beobachter insisted, were likewise conditioned by his own times:

The German Reich had had the misfortune to achieve its external form when there was no longer any inner content. The classical heights of German education had sunk, the song of German Romanticism sounded only from afar. On the other hand, Realism was on the rise, leading more and more toward materialism. Money and business had become the gods of the age.

A state as the “guardian and defender of culture; a state as the means of achieving the true goal of existence, not as a goal in itself; a state that is built on the Volk—that, Nietzsche would have accepted,” the newspaper claimed. Therefore, the philosopher “would have agreed with today’s [National Socialist] German idea of the state with all of his heart.”

Under the Weimar Republic, the Völkischer Beobachter complained, Nietzsche had been invoked far too frequently by “international-democratic literati” as a “star-witness” for their worldview. But, the paper countered, Nietzsche “hated and fought every form of democracy, both political and spiritual,” and he said so in the sharpest possible terms. The notions that “all are the same” and that at base we are all just selfish brutes and riffraff—were symbolic of the democratic age that believed in the equality of men and that established “the weak, fat, and cowardly as standards for this equality.”

In Nietzsche’s opinion, said the Völkischer Beobachter, this rule of the humble amounted to a blow against life itself. Against the democratic and supposedly feeble outlook of the Weimar era, the newspaper argued, Nietzsche set forth a way of thinking that sets laws for the future—an outlook which “handled contemporary things harshly and tyrannically” in the interest of the future.

Thus did the cultural-historical material that appeared in the Völkischer Beobachter resound with the Führer/Artist–Artist/Führer theme that typified Nazi cultural politics. Hitler was the primary manifestation of this creative leadership, but he came, according to this view, after a long line of notable predecessors, including Luther, Beethoven, Wagner, and, yes, Nietzsche.

Cultural renewal in accordance with such perceptions of intellectual history was a central premise of the larger project of the Third Reich, fundamental to Hitler’s aims. But this agenda also contributed to the most destructive impulses of the movement. Indeed, German cultural identity as shaped by the Nazi regime did not merely justify anti-Semitism or policies of extermination, it led to them. Hitler’s racist standards of judgment were grounded in cultural terms, as he stated in Mein Kampf: “If we were to divide mankind into three groups, the founders of culture, the bearers of culture, the destroyers of culture, only the Aryan could be considered as the representative of the first group.” According to the Völkischer Beobachter, Jewish creators such as Heine, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Schoenberg—among many others—supposedly belonged in the latter, so they and their kind had to be eradicated.

Demonstrating that great cultural figures of the past would have agreed with these premises was a priority in the Nazi newspaper. One contributor put it in these stark terms: “to win over to our movement spiritual leaders who think they see something distasteful in anti-Semitism, it is extremely important to present more and more evidence that great, recognized spirits shared our hatred of Jewry.”

In the case of Nietzsche, however, this process required a little more “spin” than the “selective scavenging” for biographical and textual evidence that scholar Steven Aschheim identified as the usual mode of such politicization. Some Völkischer Beobachter contributors recognized that Nietzsche had not been a committed anti-Semite, and had even criticized the anti-Semitic views of Richard Wagner, his own sister, Elisabeth, and her husband, Bernhard Förster. One editor, for instance, said about Nietzsche: “His work contains other crass contradictions and obscurities, especially in his treatment of the Jewish Question, where he sometimes confesses himself as an Anti-Semite, and then as a philo-Semite. Equally obscure is what he understood as race and nation. This may be a result of the eruptive nature of his creativity and the shortness of his life, which didn’t allow him enough time to go into these issues deeply.”

Link: St. Petersburg 1914: The Door to Another Age

As war approached in 1914, the Russian capital St Petersburg was the scene of imperial splendour and abject poverty, utopian hopes and portents of impending doom.

I have never met anyone who is more proud of her kitchen door than Firuza Seidova. In fact, Firuza is so proud of the door in her St Petersburg kitchen that she has invited me to her flat on Liteiny Prospekt to see it.

I’m here very early in the morning - the night train from Moscow has whisked me to a St Petersburg which is still dark and sleepy and bitterly cold. But at home, Firuza is wide awake and welcoming. She’s made me breakfast - black bread with thick slices of cheese and a cup of piping hot green tea.

We’re sitting at her kitchen table eating our buterbrody - and staring at the door. To be honest, it doesn’t look very special. The old wooden panels have faded. They’re blotchy - and scratched. I can’t help thinking the whole thing could do with a fresh lick of paint.

But when Firuza starts recounting the history of her apartment, I realise this is much more than just a battered old door - it’s a gateway to a golden past, to the St Petersburg of 1914.

"Back then, all sorts came through my kitchen," she says. "The Emperor Nicholas was here, Sergei Prokofiev, too, and some of the most famous names in the history of chess."

Firuza shows me an old black and white photograph of two men engrossed in a game of chess. I instantly recognise the door at the back of the picture - it’s the one in Firuza’s kitchen!

One hundred years ago, Firuza Seidova’s flat was the headquarters of the St Petersburg Chess Society. The kitchen door is all that’s left of the original rooms - the last surviving link to an intriguing story.

It was spring 1914. And to mark its 10th anniversary, the St Petersburg Chess Society organised a tournament for some of the greatest players on the planet. Not everyone could make it. Chess stars from Austria-Hungary had to decline their invitations, because of pre-war tension with Russia.

Nevertheless, the list of competitors was impressive.

The favourite was from Germany: the world champion for the last 20 years, Emanuel Lasker - such an elegant, inspirational player that the St Petersburg press dubbed him “the poet of the chess table”. His main rival was the man soon to be hailed as “the human chess machine”, the flamboyant Cuban diplomat Jose Raul Capablanca.

From England came the heavy-drinking Mancunian Joseph Blackburne (nickname “The Black Death”). From America, top tactician Frank Marshall. Representing Russia, the attacking Alexander Alekhine. And there they all were, fighting it out in Firuza’s flat.

For one glorious month Europe seemed to forget it was on the precipice of war and was transfixed by battles on the chessboards of St Petersburg. Each move, every twist and turn in this grand tournament was transmitted back across the continent by an army of reporters. The venue wasn’t nearly big enough for the crowds that came. One journalist complained that “the stuffiness and the heat were almost tropical”.

And this is how newspaper Novoye Vremya described the atmosphere:

"Spectators were packed in unceremoniously like sardines in a barrel. They craned their necks; they stood on tiptoes, even on chairs so they could see the play… and the room was so thick with tobacco smoke, it was like a mortuary where they’re busy cutting up corpses."

And yet, in this stifling, smoky hell of a chess club, there was a feeling that something very special was being forged from the intellectual tussles taking place here, something which transcended chess, something great that would change the world for the better. The newspaper Kopeika predicted that in St Petersburg “the noble game of chess” would “promote the idea of world peace”.

In the journal Rech, Emanuel Lasker went even further. He seemed to imply that the competitors would be thinking so hard about their chess moves that, somewhere along the way, they would think up a whole “new set of values” for mankind. A very lofty, rather ambitious thought.

But even “chess poets” and “human chess machines” need some down time. So one day the competitors were treated to a tour of St Petersburg. And what they would have seen that day would have made them feel very much at home. For St Petersburg was Russia’s most cosmopolitan city, a capital created with one purpose - to make Russia look like Europe.

The palaces were like those you’d find in France, Italy or Germany; the canals were like Amsterdam or Venice. Even the city’s name, Sankt Peterburg, had been deliberately chosen by Peter the Great to sound more Dutch than Russian. Over the centuries, architects, engineers, shipbuilders and shopkeepers travelled here from across Europe, taking part in this unique project to westernise Russia. Many of the visitors put down roots and foreign communities became part of the fabric of St Petersburg. In 1914 the city boasted German butchers, Austrian bakeries, English sweet shops. At the city’s grandest delicatessen, the Yeliseyev, goods were advertised in Russian, French and German.

And then there were the cinemas, with their exotic, non-Slavic names. St Petersburg’s main street, Nevsky Prospekt, was full of them - the Crystal Palace, the Majestic, Folies Bergere, foreign titles which conjured up images of European grandeur. In 1914 a new cinema opened up on Nevsky, the Parisiana. It was, by all accounts, a remarkable building. The auditorium was built in the style of Louis XVI of France, with stucco walls and a giant marble staircase. Some of the stalls and the balcony lodges even had their own telephones. And the cinema roof could be opened mechanically so you could relax, watch a film and gaze at the stars.

The Parisiana symbolised everything Russia wanted to be in 1914 - a world leader, an innovator, an industrial, technological and cultural powerhouse. I try to find the Parisiana on Nevsky Prospekt. Sadly, it’s no longer there. It’s been replaced by a Swedish clothes store. Still, I suppose that even Swedish sweaters, socks and bras keep up that St Petersburg tradition of embracing Europe.

I get chatting to a security guard in the clothes shop. He tells me about an old cinema that has survived, just down the road. A narrow archway leads me into a back yard and there it is - a hidden jewel of St Petersburg cinema history. Since communist times, this semi-circular structure with classical columns has been known as the Aurora - in honour of the naval cruiser which, legend has it, fired the first shot in the Russian Revolution.

But the cinema’s original name was the Piccadilly. It, too, was new in 1914 and, like the Parisiana, was conceived as a sumptuous palace of film. Inside I discover the most stunning cinema foyer I’ve ever seen, with gigantic Chinese vases and exquisite frescoes.

If the spectacular St Petersburg cinema halls of 1914 projected a brash confidence, a country oozing money and ambition, the films themselves told a different story. That year, Russian silent movies were obsessed with destruction and violence.

In the film Life in Death, a doctor is so keen to preserve his wife’s beauty that he kills her and embalms her body. And in Child of the Big City, director Yevgeny Bauer foretells the disintegration of Russian society. Desperate to escape her sweatshop existence, seamstress Mary seduces a wealthy gentleman called Viktor. She then drains him of all his money and throws him penniless onto the street. Viktor shoots himself. On seeing his lifeless body, the heartless Mary is quoted as saying, “Well, they do say that meeting a dead man brings you good luck.” She steps over his corpse and never looks back.

In many ways, the silver screen reflected the dark reality of St Petersburg 1914. True, this was a city of plenty, where you could buy anything from foreign maple syrup to coats made of kangaroo fur. But it was also a place of abject poverty for many of the workers, of poor housing, appalling sanitation and widespread disease.

The death rate in St Petersburg was higher than in any capital in Europe. Suicide was on the rise, too. And it was a violent city. A sharp increase in street crime pointed to growing hostility between the social classes.

The local press lamented the disturbing new phenomenon of “hooliganism”. Little did they know that in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, female punk bands and Greenpeace activists would be charged with the same crime.

There were strikes at factories, arrests of suspected revolutionaries. More than anything, there was a sense of impending doom. On 19 May, St Petersburg was invaded by dragonflies, a bizarre infestation of biblical proportions - the skies, the streets and the River Neva were teeming with insects. Many people in the city saw it as a terrifying omen.

This was a very different St Petersburg from the city experienced by the stars of the 1914 chess tournament - they were treated to concerts, lavish banquets and presented with gilded wine glasses specially made by Faberge. Locked in their intellectual bubble, the players could think grand thoughts about changing the world. But outside, the world was changing anyway, and it wasn’t the masters of chess who would shape the future.

One week before the dragonflies descended, Lasker was declared chess champion of St Petersburg. That summer, there was another international chess competition, in Mannheim, Germany. It featured 11 players from the Russian empire.

By this time, though, few people believed in the power of chess to change the world. After round 11 of the Mannheim tournament, Germany declared war on Russia. All the Russian players were arrested and imprisoned, including the future world champion, Alekhine. Later he’d be put in solitary confinement for smiling at a guard.

In response to the declaration of war, Tsar Nicholas II renamed his capital. Suddenly “Sankt Peterburg” sounded too German and the city became Petrograd - far more Russian. Of course, Russia’s 20th Century nightmare was only just beginning. World war would lead to revolution and brutal civil war.

But what I find most remarkable about the St Petersburg of 1914 is that it was this moment in history - the eve of cataclysmic change - when Russia reached her creative peak. When artists and composers decided that anything goes, experimenting like never before with words and sound and colour.

Many of Russia’s most creative writers and poets gravitated towards the Stray Dog Cafe in St Petersburg - an artistic salon in a cellar where they could stay up all night reciting their works, and arguing about art and politics. The Russian Revolution would destroy many of them. Mandelstam died in a Soviet prison camp. Tsvetaeva and Mayakovsky committed suicide.

Sitting at her kitchen table, in what was once the St Petersburg Chess Society, Firuza Seidova has a simple explanation for this explosion of creativity, which preceded Russia’s catastrophe.

"It’s the same with my house plants, when I don’t look after them properly," she says, pointing to flowerpots on the windowsill.

"You see, when flowers feel that they’re dying, they try to blossom one last time."

Introduction from Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison

On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds” (Pièces originales…, 372-4).

"Finally, he was quartered," recounts the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. "This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints…

"It is said that, though he was always a great swearer, no blashemy escaped his lips; but the excessive pain made him utter horrible cries, and he often repeated: ‘My God, have pity on me! Jesus, help me!’ The spectators were all edified by the solicitude of the parish priest of St Paul’s who despite his great age did not spare himself in offering consolation to the patient."

Bouton, an officer of the watch, left us his account: “The sulphur was lit, but the flame was so poor that only the top skin of the hand was burnt, and that only slightly. Then the executioner, his sleeves rolled up, took the steel pincers, which had been especially made for the occasion, and which were about a foot and a half long, and pulled first at the calf of the right leg, then at the thigh, and from there at the two fleshy parts of the right arm; then at the breasts. Though a strong, sturdy fellow, this executioner found it so difficult to tear away the pieces of flesh that he set about the same spot two or three times, twisting the pincers as he did so, and what he took away formed at each part a wound about the size of a six-pound crown piece.

"After these tearings with the pincers, Damiens, who cried out profusely, though without swearing, raised his head and looked at himself; the same executioner dipped an iron spoon in the pot containing the boiling potion, which he poured liberally over each wound. Then the ropes that were to be harnessed to the horses were attached with cords to the patient’s body; the horses were then harnessed and placed alongside the arms and legs, one at each limb.

"Monsieur Le Breton, the clerk of the court, went up to the patient several times and asked him if he had anything to say. He said he had not; at each torment, he cried out, as the damned in hell are supposed to cry out, ‘Pardon, my God! Pardon, my Lord.’ Despite all this pain, he raised his head from time to time and looked at himself boldly. The cords had been tied so tightly by the men who pulled the ends that they caused him indescribable pain. Monsieur le [sic] Breton went up to him again and asked him if he had anything to say; he said no. Several confessors went up to him and spoke to him at length; he willingly kissed the crucifix that was held out to him; he opened his lips and repeated: ‘Pardon, Lord.’

"The horses tugged hard, each pulling straight on a limb, each horse held by an executioner. After a quarter of an hour, the same ceremony was repeated and finally, after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to be changed, thus: those at the arms were made to pull towards the head, those at the thighs towards the arms, which broke the arms at the joints. This was repeated several times without success. He raised his head and looked at himself. Two more horses had to be added to those harnessed to the thighs, which made six horses in all. Without success.

"Finally, the executioner, Samson, said to Monsieur Le Breton that there was no way or hope of succeeding, and told him to ask their Lordships if they wished him to have the prisoner cut into pieces. Monsieur Le Breton, who had come down from the town, ordered that renewed efforts be made, and this was done; but the horses gave up and one of those harnessed to the thighs fell to the ground. The confessors returned and spoke to him again. He said to them (I heard him): ‘Kiss me, gentlemen.’ The parish priest of St Paul’s did not dare to, so Monsieur de Marsilly slipped under the rope holding the left arm and kissed him on the forehead. The executioners gathered round and Damiens told them not to swear, to carry out their task and that he did not think ill of them; he begged them to pray to God for him, and asked the parish priest of St Paul’s to pray for him at the first mass.

"After two or three attempts, the executioner Samson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave a tug and carried off the two thighs after them, namely, that of the right side first, the other following; then the same was done to the arms, the shoulders, the arm-pits and the four limbs; the flesh had to be cut almost to the bone, the horses pulling hard carried off the right arm first and the other afterwards.

"When the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak to him; but his executioner told them that he was dead, though the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking. One of the executioners even said shortly afterwards that when they had lifted the trunk to throw it on the stake, he was still alive. The four limbs were untied from the ropes and thrown on the stake set up in the enclosure in line with the scaffold, then the trunk and the rest were covered with logs and faggots, and fire was put to the straw mixed with this wood.

"…In accordance with the decree, the whole was reduced to ashes. The last piece to be found in the embers was still burning at half-past ten in the evening. The pieces of flesh and the trunk had taken about four hours to burn. The officers of whom I was one, as also was my son, and a detachment of archers remained in the square until nearly eleven o’clock.

"There were those who made something of the fact that a dog had lain the day before on the grass where the fire had been, had been chased away several times, and had always returned. But it is not difficult to understand that an animal found this place warmer than elsewhere" (quoted in Zevaes, 201-14).

Eighty years later, Léon Faucher drew up his rules “for the House of young prisoners in Paris”:

"Art. 17. The prisoners’ day will begin at six in the morning in winter and at five in summer. They will work for nine hours a day throughout the year. Two hours a day will be devoted to instruction. Work and the day will end at nine o’clock in winter and at eight in summer.

Art. 18. Rising. At the first drum-roll, the prisoners must rise and dress in silence, as the supervisor opens the cell doors. At the second drum-roll, they must be dressed and make their beds. At the third, they must line up and proceed to the chapel for morning prayer. There is a five-minute interval between each drum-roll.

Art. 19. The prayers are conducted by the chaplain and followed by a moral or religious reading. This exercise must not last more than half an hour.

Art. 20. Work. At a quarter to six in the summer, a quarter to seven in winter, the prisoners go down into the courtyard where they must wash their hands and faces, and receive their first ration of bread. Immediately afterwards, they form into work-teams and go off to work, which must begin at six in summer and seven in winter.

Art. 21. Meal. At ten o’clock the prisoners leave their work and go to the refectory; they wash their hands in their courtyards and assemble in divisions. After the dinner, there is recreation until twenty minutes to eleven.

Art. 22. School. At twenty minutes to eleven, at the drum-roll, the prisoners form into ranks, and proceed in divisions to the school. The class lasts two hours and consists alternately of reading, writing, drawing and arithmetic.

Art. 23. At twenty minutes to one, the prisoners leave the school, in divisions, and return to their courtyards for recreation. At five minutes to one, at the drum-roll, they form into workteams.

Art. 24. At one o’clock they must be back in the workshops: they work until four o’clock.

Art. 25. At four o’clock the prisoners leave their workshops and go into the courtyards where they wash their hands and form into divisions for the refectory.

Art. 26. Supper and the recreation that follows it last until five o’clock: the prisoners then return to the workshops.

Art. 27. At seven o’clock in the summer, at eight in winter, work stops; bread is distributed for the last time in the workshops. For a quarter of an hour one of the prisoners or supervisors reads a passage from some instructive or uplifting work. This is followed by evening prayer.

Art. 28. At half-past seven in summer, half-past eight in winter, the prisoners must be back in their cells after the washing of hands and the inspection of clothes in the courtyard; at the first drum-roll, they must undress, and at the second get into bed. The cell doors are closed and the supervisors go the rounds in the corridors, to ensure order and silence” (Faucher, 274, 82).

We have, then, a public execution and a time-table. They do not punish the same crimes or the same type of delinquent. But they each define a certain penal style. Less than a century separates them. It was a time when, in Europe and in the United States, the entire economy of punishment was redistributed. It was a time of great “scandals” for traditional justice, a time of innumerable projects for reform. It saw a new theory of law and crime, a new moral or political justification of the right to punish; old laws were abolished, old customs died out. “Modern” codes were planned or drawn up: Russia, 1769; Prussia, 1780; Pennsylvania and Tuscany, 1786; Austria, 1788; France, 1791, Year IV, 1808 and 1810. It was a new age for penal justice.

Among so many changes, I shall consider one: the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle. Today we are rather inclined to ignore it; perhaps, in its time, it gave rise to too much inflated rhetoric; perhaps it has been attributed too readily and too emphatically to a process of “humanization”, thus dispensing with the need for further analysis. And, in any case, how important is such a change, when compared with the great institutional transformations, the formulation of explicit, general codes and unified rules of procedure; with the almost universal adoption of the jury system, the definition of the essentially corrective character of the penalty and the tendency, which has become increasingly marked since the nineteenth century, to adapt punishment to the individual offender? Punishment of a less immediately physical kind, a certain discretion in the art of inflicting pain, a combination of more subtle, more subdued sufferings, deprived of their visible display, should not all this be treated as a special case, an incidental effect of deeper changes? And yet the fact remains that a few decades saw the disappearance of the tortured, dismembered, amputated body, symbolically branded on face or shoulder, exposed alive or dead to public view. The body as the major target of penal repression disappeared. 

The people demands only what is necessary, it merely wants justice and tranquility; the rich lay claim to everything, they invade all others’ rights and aim at universal domination. Social abuses are the handiwork and province of the rich, they are the scourge of the people. The interest of the people is the general interest, that of the rich is a particular interest; and yet you wish to give the people no voice in government and make the rich all-powerful!
— Maximilien Robespierre in his March 1791 speech on the right to vote (via crookedsin)