Commentary Magazine


Topic: Stalin

Bookshelf

• Most American playgoers of my generation only know John Osborne through the excellent films of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer directed by Tony Richardson a half-century ago. Though the original Angry Young Man enjoyed a brief American vogue—Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer were produced simultaneously on Broadway in 1958—no play by Osborne has been seen on the Great White Way since 1969. I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if the much-praised Old Vic revival of The Entertainer makes it to New York sooner or later, Anglophilia being what it is, but I very much doubt that Osborne’s plays will ever take root in this country, for what (mostly) made him angry was the British class system, about which normal Americans know little and care less. A novelist can overcome that obstacle if he’s sufficiently clever and has other interesting things to say—Kingsley Amis did it—but only the very greatest of playwrights can contrive to embed in a two-hour-long play sufficient background information to make so fundamentally impenetrable a subject intelligible to those who know nothing about it going in. Osborne had his moments, but he wasn’t that good, not even in The Entertainer.

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• Most American playgoers of my generation only know John Osborne through the excellent films of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer directed by Tony Richardson a half-century ago. Though the original Angry Young Man enjoyed a brief American vogue—Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer were produced simultaneously on Broadway in 1958—no play by Osborne has been seen on the Great White Way since 1969. I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if the much-praised Old Vic revival of The Entertainer makes it to New York sooner or later, Anglophilia being what it is, but I very much doubt that Osborne’s plays will ever take root in this country, for what (mostly) made him angry was the British class system, about which normal Americans know little and care less. A novelist can overcome that obstacle if he’s sufficiently clever and has other interesting things to say—Kingsley Amis did it—but only the very greatest of playwrights can contrive to embed in a two-hour-long play sufficient background information to make so fundamentally impenetrable a subject intelligible to those who know nothing about it going in. Osborne had his moments, but he wasn’t that good, not even in The Entertainer.

John Heilpern, an expatriate Brit who reviews theater for the New York Observer, has now written an authorized biography, John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man (Knopf, 527 pp., $35), in which he endeavors mightily to prove that Osborne is not only worth remembering but worth performing. I’m not quite sure he succeeds, though his book is lively and readable (if not especially well organized). What he does succeed in doing is leaving the reader in no possible doubt that Osborne was a monstrously difficult man whose gifts, at least in the second half of his life, weren’t impressive enough to justify his bad behavior. Be forewarned, too, that John Osborne wasn’t written for an American audience, meaning that those who don’t already know a pretty fair amount about postwar England are likely to find certain parts of the narrative to be tough sledding. If you’re interested in Osborne, though, you’ll certainly find it worthwhile.

• Clive James, like John Osborne, is not nearly so well known in the United States as in England, and his latest book, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35), is unlikely to change that, partly because it is all but impossible to describe succinctly and partly because James himself is peculiarly resistant to pigeonholing. Not only is he a liberal who despises ideology in all its myriad forms and has a pitch-perfect ear for left-wing humbug—a combination of traits increasingly hard to find on either side of the Atlantic—but he is a spectacularly well-read cultural journalist who writes with witty flair about the most serious of ideas, which makes him an oddity in a po-faced world dominated by pop culture.

As for Cultural Amnesia, it’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them 20th-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them. Most of them are present for obvious reasons, though a few are ringers (I never did figure out why James thought Tony Curtis and Zinka Milanov belonged in a book about the likes of Jean Cocteau, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Stefan Zweig) and several others are unlikely to be familiar to the average reader (I readily admit to never having previously heard of Egon Friedell or Alfred Polgar, though reading Cultural Amnesia made me want to know much more about them).

All this is part of the deliberately eccentric, wonderfully unpredictable charm of Cultural Amnesia, which is a cross between a philosophical dictionary and a bedside book for eggheads. Most of it is full of good hard common sense: I can’t imagine better short discussions of such widely varied figures as Raymond Aron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Jean-Paul Sartre, to name only a few of the people in whom James takes an interest. He is especially good on bad guys, for he writes with a razor and has an uncanny knack for summing up a lifetime of intellectual vice in one or two devastating sentences: “In the long view of history, [Bertolt] Brecht’s fame as a creep will prevail, as it ought to. An unblushing apologist for organized frightfulness against the common people whose welfare he claimed to prize above his own, he was really no nicer than Sir Oswald Mosley, and a lot more dangerous.” I don’t know when I’ve read a more quotable book, or a more stimulating one.

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Bevin’s Legacy

The estimable online journal Democratiya is featuring some recently unearthed cabinet memos by the British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin from early 1948, “setting out the case for the Atlantic alliance and for a muscular social democratic antitotalitarianism,” as Democratiya’s editor, Alan Johnson, puts it. (The memos can be read here; Johnson’s gloss is here.)

Bevin was a self-educated worker, who had been forced to drop out of school at the age of ten in order to support himself. His native wit propelled him to the top of Britain’s trade union movement and then to a leading position in the Labor Party. His clear-eyed recognition of the threat and the evil represented by Soviet Communism led him to become the mastermind behind the North Atlantic treaty (although these memos don’t bear directly on the treaty). In contrast, America’s brainchild for keeping the postwar peace was the UN. The biggest fear of that generation of statesmen was that a third world war centered in Europe might soon follow the first and second.

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The estimable online journal Democratiya is featuring some recently unearthed cabinet memos by the British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin from early 1948, “setting out the case for the Atlantic alliance and for a muscular social democratic antitotalitarianism,” as Democratiya’s editor, Alan Johnson, puts it. (The memos can be read here; Johnson’s gloss is here.)

Bevin was a self-educated worker, who had been forced to drop out of school at the age of ten in order to support himself. His native wit propelled him to the top of Britain’s trade union movement and then to a leading position in the Labor Party. His clear-eyed recognition of the threat and the evil represented by Soviet Communism led him to become the mastermind behind the North Atlantic treaty (although these memos don’t bear directly on the treaty). In contrast, America’s brainchild for keeping the postwar peace was the UN. The biggest fear of that generation of statesmen was that a third world war centered in Europe might soon follow the first and second.

The idea was scarcely farfetched. Milovan Djilas recounts in Conversations with Stalin that the Soviet dictator enthused at one of the all night eat-drink-talk fests at which he entertained and intimidated his Yugoslav comrades that “the war shall soon be over. We shall recover in fifteen or twenty years, and then we’ll have another go at it.” What prevented that was NATO, the organization that grew out of Bevin’s treaty. In contrast, the UN’s contribution to averting another big war was about as large as that of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Instead of scolding us for not showing more deference to the UN, why don’t Europeans realize that the stark comparison between the achievements of Bevin’s NATO and those of FDR’s UN furnish evidence, of which there is otherwise precious little, that Europeans really are wiser than Americans?

Not that Bevin’s wisdom was flawless. These memos dwell on the importance of social democracy as a “third force” alternative to capitalism and Communism. It was of course nothing of the sort. Rather, it was a modification of capitalism. But more important, there was something morally blind in such categories, suffused as they were with the backwash of Marxian hocus pocus. What was at stake was much larger than economics: it was a conflict between civilization and barbarism. Today, again, we find ourselves in the grips of struggle with barbarism, albeit of a different species. And today, too, there are voices—most of them less admirable than Bevin’s—that would distract us with petty quibbles.

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“Hurt Into Poetry”

Last week I attended a reading of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s poems at the New School in downtown Manhattan. At the podium were the poets Edward Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski, Herbert’s translator Alissa Valles, the journalist and dissident Adam Michnik, and New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn. This event marked a long-awaited occasion: the publication of Herbert’s collected works in English. Collected Poems, 1956-1998, in Valles’s sensitive translation, makes an important addition to our understanding of post-war literary modernism, and of post-war poetry in general.

On the occasion of Herbert’s death in 1998, his compatriot, translator, and friend Czesław Miłosz wrote a short, understated poem about their shared art form and how the deceased unfailingly attended it:

He, who served [poetry],
is changed into a thing,
delivered to decomposition
into salts and phosphates,
sinks
into the home of chaos.

Changed into a thing: a line Herbert himself would have seen as no small compliment. A battered son of Eastern Europe who saw his country repeatedly swapped by Hitler and Stalin, Herbert was understandably preoccupied with the permanent and stable. His poetry is a lasting monument to the safety of objects, to what he once called “a predatory love of the concrete.” Flowers, diamonds, armchairs, stools–these rarely let one down in the flux of life, and through them mankind can fashion a saner metaphysics than through appeals to History and the inevitable forces of “progress.”

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Last week I attended a reading of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s poems at the New School in downtown Manhattan. At the podium were the poets Edward Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski, Herbert’s translator Alissa Valles, the journalist and dissident Adam Michnik, and New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn. This event marked a long-awaited occasion: the publication of Herbert’s collected works in English. Collected Poems, 1956-1998, in Valles’s sensitive translation, makes an important addition to our understanding of post-war literary modernism, and of post-war poetry in general.

On the occasion of Herbert’s death in 1998, his compatriot, translator, and friend Czesław Miłosz wrote a short, understated poem about their shared art form and how the deceased unfailingly attended it:

He, who served [poetry],
is changed into a thing,
delivered to decomposition
into salts and phosphates,
sinks
into the home of chaos.

Changed into a thing: a line Herbert himself would have seen as no small compliment. A battered son of Eastern Europe who saw his country repeatedly swapped by Hitler and Stalin, Herbert was understandably preoccupied with the permanent and stable. His poetry is a lasting monument to the safety of objects, to what he once called “a predatory love of the concrete.” Flowers, diamonds, armchairs, stools–these rarely let one down in the flux of life, and through them mankind can fashion a saner metaphysics than through appeals to History and the inevitable forces of “progress.”

That is not to say, however, that Herbert was unconcerned with politics and ideas. Born in 1924 in Lwow, he seemed destined for a quiet life of the mind until the noise of invasion and occupation roused him from that idyllic might-have-been. He joined the resistance, continued his studies while underground, and performed odd jobs throughout Poland until his gifts as a poet were recognized with the publication of his book Chord of Light in 1956

Herbert’s career as a poet only became possible after the Communist “thaw” of that year, the slight liberalization following Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech.” It is sobering to consider how great the loss would have been had this modest liberalization tempted him to compromise his talents for the sake of political expedience. (He once wrote a wry and haunting poem, A Life, that imagined what doing exactly that would be like: it ends with the poet-stooge and his friends asking rhetorically if “the dictatorship of the proletariat / may exclude art in the true sense,” before erupting into grim laughter.)

Yet a figure far more expressive of Herbert’s actual biography was his alter ego Mr. Cogito, a supremely ironic and polymorphous being, inhabiting every mode of thought and experience, through which the poet voiced his deepest insecurities, longings and fears: becoming a has-been, returning to his native town, confronting the abyss of “fathomless days,” his own eventual decay.

It’s well worth recalling that after the Berlin Wall came down, Herbert returned to his homeland with harsh words for the agreements struck between Solidarity and the Communist government. A staunch cold warrior, he went so far as blame the softer politics of Milosz and Michnik for the national malaise then gripping Poland. But not even this slight minimized Herbert’s artistic achievement and his indomitable humanity in the eyes of his anti-totalitarian compatriots. Michnik is all forgiveness today. When, during the question and answer period after the reading, Edward Hirsch drew a comparison between Herbert and the Latin American poets, specifically Pablo Neruda, the great Polish dissident shot back: “Neruda wrote about Stalin, Herbert wrote about Marcus Aurelius. I’d like to have the value of the difference between them in dollars.” (So would I.)

Auden wrote of Yeats that “mad Ireland hurt [him] into poetry.” Without World War II, there’s a good chance Zbigniew Herbert would now be remembered, if at all, as a professor of philosophy or art history: he, too, was hurt into poetry. He loved antiquity and used myths and other classical imagery to evoke the grim conditions of the ravaged world outside his window, but could also be arrestingly direct about those conditions: “Metaphors mock you as you flee/into a spray of righteous bullets.” Hard to surpass, as a comment on the fragile and tragicomic position of the artist in history. But we should be grateful, in Herbert’s case: if not for the bullets, then for the metaphors.

 

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Churchill’s Ghost(writer)

One can react in various ways to the unearthing by a Cambridge University researcher of a never-published 1937 article by Winston Churchill. This article, entitled “How The Jews Can Combat Persecution,” may actually have been, we are told, the work of a pro-fascist ghostwriter named Adam Marshall Diston.

One can, for instance, be disappointed to find out that Churchill used ghostwriters. Et tu, Winston?

One can accept Churchill’s use of ghostwriters but still wonder: a fascist ghostwriter? In 1937? And even if for some inexplicable reason Churchill saw nothing wrong with this, why on earth would he have asked such a person to write about the Jews?

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One can react in various ways to the unearthing by a Cambridge University researcher of a never-published 1937 article by Winston Churchill. This article, entitled “How The Jews Can Combat Persecution,” may actually have been, we are told, the work of a pro-fascist ghostwriter named Adam Marshall Diston.

One can, for instance, be disappointed to find out that Churchill used ghostwriters. Et tu, Winston?

One can accept Churchill’s use of ghostwriters but still wonder: a fascist ghostwriter? In 1937? And even if for some inexplicable reason Churchill saw nothing wrong with this, why on earth would he have asked such a person to write about the Jews?

One can reflect that if Diston really wrote the article, he made a genuine effort—knowing what Churchill’s views were—to appear even-handed. True, he attacked Jewish sweatshop owners. True, he wrote that, by being “different,” the Jews “have been partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer.” But he also condemned Nazi policies toward the Jews and called them “as cruel, as relentless, and as vindictive as any in [the Jews'] long history.”

One can even entertain the possibility that Diston was faithfully reflecting Churchill’s opinions. We know by now that decent men before and even after the Holocaust were capable of thinking things that we would consider anti-Semitic today. When Harry Truman, whose immediate recognition of the state of Israel in 1948 was heroic from a Jewish point of view, wrote in his diary in 1947 that Jews were “very, very selfish” and that “neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the underdog,” he was simply reflecting prejudices that many Americans of his generation took for granted—prejudices that they would have been startled to be told were prejudices.

But there is yet another way of reacting to the judgment expressed in Churchill’s article that the “separateness of the Jew[s]” is one of the causes of anti-Semitism. Perhaps the article was simply saying something self-evidently true.

After all, Jewish looks aside—and many religiously observant Jews do make a point of looking different—who would deny that Jews often do “think differently,” have “a different tradition and background,” and “refuse to be absorbed?” Aren’t these all things that not only religious Jews, but proud secular Jews too, like to think about themselves? Aren’t these the qualities to which they attribute their survival? And if so, why should it be anti-Semitic for them to be pointed out by non-Jews?

To be continued in my next post.

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Another Look at Auden

Out to sea, hunting Nazi war ships, Saul Bellow’s Augie March encounters a sailor, a brilliant autodidact, who tells him, “Pascal says people get in trouble because they can’t stay in their rooms. The next poet laureate of England—I figure—prays to God to teach us to sit still.” It would take W.H. Auden, who might well have become England’s poet laureate had he sat still, half his career to arrive at a similar conclusion about the mischief men do in pursuit of lofty goals. The centennial of his birth fell on February 21st of this year; most of the comments on this sadly muted occasion focused on the distinction between his “early” and “late” stages, which also happen to coincide with his Communism and his regained Anglicanism.

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Out to sea, hunting Nazi war ships, Saul Bellow’s Augie March encounters a sailor, a brilliant autodidact, who tells him, “Pascal says people get in trouble because they can’t stay in their rooms. The next poet laureate of England—I figure—prays to God to teach us to sit still.” It would take W.H. Auden, who might well have become England’s poet laureate had he sat still, half his career to arrive at a similar conclusion about the mischief men do in pursuit of lofty goals. The centennial of his birth fell on February 21st of this year; most of the comments on this sadly muted occasion focused on the distinction between his “early” and “late” stages, which also happen to coincide with his Communism and his regained Anglicanism.

Auden reached his artistic pinnacle at Europe’s darkest moment, a fact that might itself be described as Audenesque. The year 1939 yielded other burnished gems besides his “September 1, 1939″: the threnodies to Yeats and Freud, “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” “The Unknown Citizen,” “Law Like Love.” Critics of Auden’s “Spain,” who see it solely as a testament to all that was sinister and myopic in an epicene Communist’s worldview, should take the poem’s full measure. For instance, the apostrophe to nations, which calls upon “the life / That shapes the individual belly and orders / The private nocturnal terror,” has that life replying: “O no, I am not the mover; / Not to-day; not to you. To you I’m the / Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped . . . ” We know now from the publication of long-secret Soviet archives that the yes-man, the bar-companion, and the easily-duped comprise precisely the grim troika that enabled and excused Stalin’s reign of terror for so long. The poem is, thus, also a withering indictment of the Western intellectual class to which Auden belonged with such passion and brilliance. So his conscience managed to get it right, in the end—even if his short-lived political allegiances got it so remarkably wrong.

Though his abandonment of those allegiances is praiseworthy, it did nothing for him as an artist. Auden’s poetry steadily declined in quality as his commitment to religion broadened and his sense of purpose—both as a poet and as a “citizen”—grew humbler. He also traveled less, abandoning the exploratory wanderings of his earlier years, confining himself mainly to his adopted city of New York and his shire-girded summer home in Austria. As Philip Larkin observed in a withering 1960 essay, “What’s Become of Wystan?,” someone who had read nothing of Auden’s work after 1940 would have little to talk about with someone who had read nothing before 1940. A shame, too, in Larkin’s opinion: a born-again Yank might well have gone on to become a “New Yorker Walt Whitman viewing the American scene through lenses coated with a European irony” instead of the book-obsessed purveyor of agape Auden became. So much, one supposes, for Pascal and the wisdom of sitting still.

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Nine Who Fled: Kati Marton’s The Great Escape

“God protect us from the enemy without and the Hungarians within.” There’s something amusing about hearing Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, talk like this. He was referring to the construction of the hydrogen bomb, an effort he considered harmful and unnecessary, which the Hungarians in question–the physicist Edward Teller and the mathematician John von Neumann, both Jews–strongly advocated as a means of undercutting Stalinist expansion in Eastern Europe. Von Neumann had recently invented game theory, which would soon be applied to the lethal calculus known as “mutual assured destruction,” while Teller was the rumored archetype for Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove.

It’s strange, in light of this anecdote, to realize that only a few books examine the preternaturally powerful impact of Hungarian Jews on the 20th century, particularly in the arts and sciences. Kati Marton’s The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World comes as a welcome entry in the field. Under the rubric of scientists, Marton examines the lives of Teller, von Neumann, Eugene Wigner*, and Leo Szilard, all of whom ushered particle physics into its eschatological own.

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“God protect us from the enemy without and the Hungarians within.” There’s something amusing about hearing Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, talk like this. He was referring to the construction of the hydrogen bomb, an effort he considered harmful and unnecessary, which the Hungarians in question–the physicist Edward Teller and the mathematician John von Neumann, both Jews–strongly advocated as a means of undercutting Stalinist expansion in Eastern Europe. Von Neumann had recently invented game theory, which would soon be applied to the lethal calculus known as “mutual assured destruction,” while Teller was the rumored archetype for Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove.

It’s strange, in light of this anecdote, to realize that only a few books examine the preternaturally powerful impact of Hungarian Jews on the 20th century, particularly in the arts and sciences. Kati Marton’s The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World comes as a welcome entry in the field. Under the rubric of scientists, Marton examines the lives of Teller, von Neumann, Eugene Wigner*, and Leo Szilard, all of whom ushered particle physics into its eschatological own.

She also devotes more than half of her book to studying Hungarian-Jewish talent in literature, film, and photography. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon stands as the most chilling and insightful anti-Communist novel ever written. Michael Curtiz directed Casablanca, the greatest anti-fascist film ever made (in the running for greatest tout court), while British movie mogul Sir Alexander Korda (né Sandor Kellner) takes the honor for having produced the best ravaged-Europe postwar story committed to celluloid, The Third Man, which he prompted his close friend Graham Greene to script. (Korda’s other notable yachting chum was Winston Churchill.) The photographers under consideration are Andre Kertesz, the leading lensman of World War I, who mastered playful reflections and light distortions well before the Surrealists, and Robert Capa, the legendary visual chronicler of the Spanish Civil War and D-Day, who went on to co-found the still-thriving photographic cooperative Magnum Photos.

Modern life owes a great deal to these thick-accented and beguiling émigrés. But what was it that made them so special? Geography and timing, according to Marton. Her collective biography is a historical and sentimental, not to say sentimentalized, monument to the “Golden Age” of Budapest, a ghetto-less medieval city that became the cosmopolitan ground zero for European Jewish assimilation. By 1900, Jews comprised approximately one-fifth of the city’s population, as a vibrant and influential minority.

“Six hundred cafes, and among the continent’s highest concentration of theaters and cabarets, changed the rhythms of the city,” writes Marton, whose parents came of age in this milieu. “There were streets as crowded at midnight as at nine in the morning. . . . Jews—whose goal was to be Hungarian citizens of the Jewish faith—and Hungarians seemed equally invested in the dream.” So well-established and confident were Budapest’s Jews in their “Zion on the Danube” between 1870 and 1910 that the Hungarian poet Endre Ady, a Gentile, was given to proclaiming his hometown “built by the Jews for the rest of us.” There’s no small irony in the fact that the most philo-Semitic city in Mitteleuropa was also the birthplace of Theodor Herzl, who would become the prophet of Jewish relocation to the Middle East.

Or perhaps no irony at all. Budapest’s scintillating period was short-lived, and the city soon found itself located on the miserable fault-line between twin despotisms, twice. Stalin and Hitler had grim dress rehearsals in the form of Bela Kun, architect of Hungary’s Soviet Republic, and Admiral Nicholas Horthy, the right-wing dictator who emerged out of the fractured Austro-Hungarian military class and revenged himself on the Jews, whom he thought of as synonymous, more or less, with Communists. Stalin’s post-World War II anti-Semitic purges in the Warsaw Pact nations had a grim precursor in Budapest: the “heroes” of 1919 became the Laszlo Rajks of 1949. Indeed, one senses that the seedbed for the 1956 revolution was actually laid almost four decades earlier.

Koestler once remarked that the Hungarian people were the loneliest on the continent because of their linguistic and ethnic solitude. To be Jewish and Hungarian meant living in a state of double exile no matter where you washed ashore (in Koestler’s case, Berlin, Mandatory Palestine, Turkmenistan, Catalonia, and London). But even great loneliness sometimes has its rewards. It seems rather likely that because Hungarian is a language virtually impenetrable to outsiders (Edmund Wilson once made a valiant effort to learn it), its brilliant Jewish speakers proved fluent in the ways of eccentric, clubbish secrecy, a characteristic that served bon vivant aristocrats like Sir Alexander Korda as well as it did the wartime scientists at Los Alamos.

* Eugene Wigner was originally misidentified.

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Hobsbawm’s Spanish Civil War

Eric Hobsbawm was given three pages to write a cover piece about the Spanish Civil War for the review section of Saturday’s Guardian. He produced a paean to the Communist and fellow-traveling intellectuals of the 30’s, who lost the war but won, he claims, a posthumous victory by “creating the world’s memory.”

The passage in which he deals with the handful of pro-Republican intellectuals who criticized Stalin exhibits Hobsbawm’s own relativistic attitude to the truth. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, he says, was turned down by his fellow-traveling publisher Victor Gollancz and given a “critical” review in the New Statesman (i.e., a hatchet job) because, as Orwell himself wrote, Gollancz and his ideological allies believed that “one must not tell the truth about what is happening in Spain and the part played by the Communist party because to do so would prejudice public opinion against the Spanish government and so aid Franco.”

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Eric Hobsbawm was given three pages to write a cover piece about the Spanish Civil War for the review section of Saturday’s Guardian. He produced a paean to the Communist and fellow-traveling intellectuals of the 30’s, who lost the war but won, he claims, a posthumous victory by “creating the world’s memory.”

The passage in which he deals with the handful of pro-Republican intellectuals who criticized Stalin exhibits Hobsbawm’s own relativistic attitude to the truth. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, he says, was turned down by his fellow-traveling publisher Victor Gollancz and given a “critical” review in the New Statesman (i.e., a hatchet job) because, as Orwell himself wrote, Gollancz and his ideological allies believed that “one must not tell the truth about what is happening in Spain and the part played by the Communist party because to do so would prejudice public opinion against the Spanish government and so aid Franco.”


Hobsbawm does not dissent from this craven toeing of the party line; indeed, even 70 years later he still supports it. Smugly, he recalls that Orwell’s book sold “so poorly that the stock was still not exhausted 13 years later” and concludes: “Only in the cold-war era did Orwell cease to be an awkward, marginal figure.” But who marginalized him? The Stalinist intellectuals, of whom Hobsbawm was one, tried to wreck his career and came close to succeeding.

Hobsbawm mentions that W.H. Auden “modified his great 1937 poem ‘Spain’ in 1939 and refused to allow it to be reprinted in 1950.” But he does not explain how and why. In fact, Auden rewrote two lines of the poem in response to Orwell’s criticism. What Orwell took exception to were the following lines, which he read as justifying Stalinist liquidation: “Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” Auden altered “deliberate” to “inevitable” and “necessary murder” became “the fact of murder.” Auden later claimed that Orwell had been “densely unjust” in his interpretation, but the fact that he excluded even the amended version of this poem from his Collected Poems suggests that he had a bad conscience about it. Indeed, the phrase “necessary murder” became notorious after Orwell attacked it, despite Auden’s attempt at self-censorship.

Yet Hobsbawm simply glosses over this and other examples of bad faith. For him, the dilemma for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War was about “Marx versus Bakunin.” He adds that “among those who fought for the republic as soldiers, most found Marx more relevant than Bakunin” and he concludes that the war “could not have been waged, let alone won, along Orwellian lines.” Well, the Republicans actually lost the war, not least due to the ruthless policies of the Soviet NKVD agents in their ranks. But Hobsbawm is peddling here the old Communist cliché that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The fact that the Left’s sanitized interpretation of the war, which did indeed come to dominate its historiography, was utterly mendacious does not trouble him at all, either as a scholar or as a human being.

He has harsh words for the “mythology and manipulation of the regime of the victors” and “cold-war propaganda,” but not a word of criticism for the lies of the Communists and their apologists. He patronizes Orwell and ignores completely the other great writer about the civil war who abandoned Stalinism: Franz Borkenau, who was actually tortured by the Spanish Communists and whose justly celebrated book The Spanish Cockpit exposed their machinations. Nor does Hobsbawm mention the leading Spanish thinkers who, while rejecting Franco, rejected Communism even more strongly, among them Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno.
In short: vintage Hobsbawm.

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Jules Olitski, R.I.P.

There is perhaps nothing more likely to give you a healthy skepticism about utopian politics than to know that your father was executed by the Soviet secret police. In the case of the abstract painter Jules Olitski, who died February 4, the result was a lifelong distaste for art that prostituted itself to a political agenda. Today such fastidiousness seems peculiar, the quaint relic of a vanished era, which might account for the note of polite ambivalence in his obituary notices.

Olitski was born in the Ukraine in 1922, a few months after his father’s death. His mother fled to New York, where Olitski grew up and studied painting. His father’s murder seems to have haunted him, and he perpetrated a hoax about a Soviet painter hiding from Stalin’s assassins in a Brooklyn basement, a strange alter ego whom he named Jevel Demekov—a variant of Jevel Demikovsky, his birth name.

Olitski came of age during the heyday of the New York School, but he had little use for the agitated canvases and violent gestures of Jackson Pollock and his ilk. Instead, Olitski looked to purge his canvases of all violence, or even the visible evidence of labor. He dyed his canvases with delicate stains, or sprayed them with fine mists of color; the shimmering pools of color that emerged looked as if they had formed spontaneously, the way that a veil of frost might appear on a window.

Olitski was not alone in his quest for diaphanous color. Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and others pursued similar artistic goals; collectively, they formed the movement known as color-field painting (or “post-painterly abstraction,” the rather ponderous term that Clement Greenberg assigned it). But Olitski’s star was short-lived. With the rise of Pop Art and the increasing politicization of art during the Vietnam war, his sensuous and apolitical art became deeply unfashionable. Nonetheless, he made ravishing chromatic essays to the end. At the same time, he remained a keen and outspoken critic of the art world. In a lecture a few years ago, he suggested that a kind of aesthetic Gresham’s Law was at work, in which low art drove high art out of circulation.

Reputations rise and fall, of course, and it may well be that Olitski will one day be rehabilitated. I rather doubt it. Such rehabilitations require publicity campaigns and the dissemination of images, and Olitski’s fragile essays are impossible to photograph with anything near the chromatic subtlety they require. One would as soon ask a short-order cook to make a copy of a gourmet dinner. This is to be regretted, for at a time when the entanglement of art with politics has been good for neither, Olitski’s principled stand has much to teach us.

There is perhaps nothing more likely to give you a healthy skepticism about utopian politics than to know that your father was executed by the Soviet secret police. In the case of the abstract painter Jules Olitski, who died February 4, the result was a lifelong distaste for art that prostituted itself to a political agenda. Today such fastidiousness seems peculiar, the quaint relic of a vanished era, which might account for the note of polite ambivalence in his obituary notices.

Olitski was born in the Ukraine in 1922, a few months after his father’s death. His mother fled to New York, where Olitski grew up and studied painting. His father’s murder seems to have haunted him, and he perpetrated a hoax about a Soviet painter hiding from Stalin’s assassins in a Brooklyn basement, a strange alter ego whom he named Jevel Demekov—a variant of Jevel Demikovsky, his birth name.

Olitski came of age during the heyday of the New York School, but he had little use for the agitated canvases and violent gestures of Jackson Pollock and his ilk. Instead, Olitski looked to purge his canvases of all violence, or even the visible evidence of labor. He dyed his canvases with delicate stains, or sprayed them with fine mists of color; the shimmering pools of color that emerged looked as if they had formed spontaneously, the way that a veil of frost might appear on a window.

Olitski was not alone in his quest for diaphanous color. Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and others pursued similar artistic goals; collectively, they formed the movement known as color-field painting (or “post-painterly abstraction,” the rather ponderous term that Clement Greenberg assigned it). But Olitski’s star was short-lived. With the rise of Pop Art and the increasing politicization of art during the Vietnam war, his sensuous and apolitical art became deeply unfashionable. Nonetheless, he made ravishing chromatic essays to the end. At the same time, he remained a keen and outspoken critic of the art world. In a lecture a few years ago, he suggested that a kind of aesthetic Gresham’s Law was at work, in which low art drove high art out of circulation.

Reputations rise and fall, of course, and it may well be that Olitski will one day be rehabilitated. I rather doubt it. Such rehabilitations require publicity campaigns and the dissemination of images, and Olitski’s fragile essays are impossible to photograph with anything near the chromatic subtlety they require. One would as soon ask a short-order cook to make a copy of a gourmet dinner. This is to be regretted, for at a time when the entanglement of art with politics has been good for neither, Olitski’s principled stand has much to teach us.

Read Less

Hellman, Hammett, and Stalin

On February 6th, Human Rights Watch announced the winners of this year’s Hellman-Hammett grants, awarded to “writers all around the world who have been victims of political persecution.” The grants honor playwright Lillian Hellman and novelist Dashiell Hammett and are funded from Hellman’s estate. This year’s recipients were mostly from China, Vietnam, and Iran, and were presumably worthy and needy.

But what is a “human rights” organization doing honoring the memory of these two literary thugs? HRW says that “Hellman and Hammett were both interrogated in the 1950′s about their political beliefs and affiliations” in an era when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Communist paranoia helped fuel nearly a decade of anti-Communist ‘witch hunts.’. . . Hellman suffered professionally. . . . Hammett spent time in jail.”

Whatever paranoia and witch hunts there may have been in the 1950′s, Hellman and Hammett could not have been among the objects, for they were Communists, true-believing, loyally-serving devotées of Stalin.

When the Soviet dictator purged his rivals, he staged grotesque “show trials” at which first the prosecutors denounced the defendants, then the defense attorneys denounced the defendants, and then the defendants—having been tortured and threatened with the murder of their families—denounced themselves. Leftist intellectuals around the world raised their voices to protest this travesty.

Hellman and Hammett, by contrast, raised their voices to denounce the protesters. They signed a petition that appeared in the Communist party journal New Masses, with the heading “Leading Artists, Educators Support Soviet Trial Verdict.” They and their comrades declared that the Moscow defendants had

resorted to duplicity and conspiracy and allied themselves with long-standing enemies of the Soviet Union—nationalists who had ties with capitalist, fascist, and White Guard Allies, and even with former czarist agents provocateurs. Degeneration may therefore be charged to the defendants, and not the Soviet Union, which gains strength internally and externally by the prevention of treason and the eradication of spies and wreckers.

A far more fitting tribute to the memories of Hellman and Hammett would be an award honoring the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of political persecution.

On February 6th, Human Rights Watch announced the winners of this year’s Hellman-Hammett grants, awarded to “writers all around the world who have been victims of political persecution.” The grants honor playwright Lillian Hellman and novelist Dashiell Hammett and are funded from Hellman’s estate. This year’s recipients were mostly from China, Vietnam, and Iran, and were presumably worthy and needy.

But what is a “human rights” organization doing honoring the memory of these two literary thugs? HRW says that “Hellman and Hammett were both interrogated in the 1950′s about their political beliefs and affiliations” in an era when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Communist paranoia helped fuel nearly a decade of anti-Communist ‘witch hunts.’. . . Hellman suffered professionally. . . . Hammett spent time in jail.”

Whatever paranoia and witch hunts there may have been in the 1950′s, Hellman and Hammett could not have been among the objects, for they were Communists, true-believing, loyally-serving devotées of Stalin.

When the Soviet dictator purged his rivals, he staged grotesque “show trials” at which first the prosecutors denounced the defendants, then the defense attorneys denounced the defendants, and then the defendants—having been tortured and threatened with the murder of their families—denounced themselves. Leftist intellectuals around the world raised their voices to protest this travesty.

Hellman and Hammett, by contrast, raised their voices to denounce the protesters. They signed a petition that appeared in the Communist party journal New Masses, with the heading “Leading Artists, Educators Support Soviet Trial Verdict.” They and their comrades declared that the Moscow defendants had

resorted to duplicity and conspiracy and allied themselves with long-standing enemies of the Soviet Union—nationalists who had ties with capitalist, fascist, and White Guard Allies, and even with former czarist agents provocateurs. Degeneration may therefore be charged to the defendants, and not the Soviet Union, which gains strength internally and externally by the prevention of treason and the eradication of spies and wreckers.

A far more fitting tribute to the memories of Hellman and Hammett would be an award honoring the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of political persecution.

Read Less

Bill Keller, Secret Agent

In 1978, back when I was working for him on Capitol Hill, Senator Pat Moynihan propounded what he called “the Iron Law of Emulation.” The basic idea was that organizations in conflict with one another come to resemble one another. Because he was drawing on the work of the 19th German sociologist Georg Simmel, some on his staff used to call it, somewhat mockingly, the Iron Law of Simmelation.

But Moynihan’s point was a good one. And today, with former New York Times reporter Judith Miller on the witness stand in the trial of Scooter Libby, we can see the iron law at work in the fiercely adversarial relationship between the Times and the U.S. intelligence community.

The editors and reporters of the New York Times believe they are covering the CIA–and in fact they are–but they are also in competition with the spy agency and the resemblances between the two institutions are striking.

Both, to begin with, have a remarkably similar mission. The CIA is charged with trying to inform its clients (the White House and the rest of the executive branch) about the world around it: what is going on where, what are the looming dangers, what are the facts, and how do reliably do we know them? Much of what the New York Times does is precisely the same, except its client is not the government but the newspaper-buying American public.

Because they are caught up in certain characteristic American dysfunctions, both institutions carry out their functions with mixed results.

The CIA and the Times, for one thing, are both charter members of the cult of “diversity.” In 1995, the spy agency created an internal body called the Resources Oversight Council aimed “at improving the agency’s efforts to hire and provide career development for women, minorities, the deaf, and people with disabilities,” leading the CIA to hire more Hispanics at the very moment when it really needed more Arabic speakers.

The Times has been doing something quite similar, and damage has demonstrably been done. In 2006 the paper announced with much fanfare that an internal body known as “the diversity council” had concluded that “diversity is essential to our business future and our journalism.” But the emphasis on diversity had been in place for decades, and it was to figure in one of the worst debacles (see below) the newspaper ever endured.

Like any large elite organization the CIA and the Times must contend with mediocrity creeping in and gumming up the works. Thus, the CIA has kept incompetents in its ranks, including “anonymous”–a.k.a. Michael Scheuer, its top expert on Osama bin Laden, who despite his insistence on always “checking the checkables,” has enormous difficulty spelling proper names and who characterized bin Laden as “the most respected, loved, romantic, charismatic, and perhaps able figure in the last 150 years of Islamic history.” And “gentle,” too.

The Times, for its part, keeps an impressive daily log of its errors, spelling and otherwise, which despite an army of editors, it cannot seem to contain. For more serious instances of bias and misinterpretation, one need only recall the reporting by Walter Duranty of Stalin’s show trials and artificial famine in the 1930’s, the placement of the Holocaust on the back pages during the 1940’s, its depiction of the North Vietnamese defeat in the Tet offensive as a major victory, or turn to watchdog outfits like CAMERA for an array of contemporary documentation.

Both institutions, over the years, have had worse than bad apples in their ranks. The CIA has suffered outright turncoats like Soviet mole Aldrich Ames, who despite internal evaluations of egregious misbehavior was steadily promoted upward until he was in a position to give away the CIA’s most precious assets.

The New York Times has had its outright traitors, too, like the diversity-hire Jayson Blair, whose fictional reporting the paper was to call “a profound betrayal of trust.” During his five-year career progressing from intern to national reporter, the management of the Times received numerous warnings that the rising star was actually a comet waiting to crash. Despite such cautions, Blair steadily advanced, like Aldrich Ames, eventually reducing the Times to what it itself called “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

But in both institutions, it is not deliberate bad faith that typically creates malfunction but something else. The CIA notoriously failed to foresee the attacks of September 11 and then issued an erroneous “slam-dunk” assessment that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The problem was simply that agency analysts placed too much stock in Iraqi émigré sources who were telling them what they wanted to hear. The New York Times’s credulous treatment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal fell into the same trap.

Judith Miller was front and center. In reporting on Saddam’s burgeoning (but non-existent) WMD program, she too placed too much faith in sources who were telling her what she wanted to hear. Strikingly, in both cases, the chain of command in the CIA and the New York Times failed to ask critical questions, which only became utterly obvious–and the subject of much sanctimonious handwringing–in the incandescent glow of hindsight.

Ironically, one of the factors underpinning such maladaptive behavior is that both institutions operate behind a veil of secrecy. The CIA assiduously keeps both its methods of intelligence gathering and its internal deliberations under wraps: sources and methods, in particular, are treated as ultra-sensitive matters, disclosure of which is punishable by law.

So too with the New York Times, which, even as it calls for greater openness by the U.S. government jealously conceals its own internal workings. As with the CIA, sources and methods are treated by the Times as a matter of extraordinary sensitivity, with some of its operatives ready and willing to go to jail (Judith Miller once again!) rather than reveal who has told them what.

All of which makes the Scooter Libby trial so very compelling. A window is being opened into the internal operations of news- and intelligence-gathering at once. It is only confirming that in many of their essentials, and despite the loud protestations such a claim would elicit from both sides, the iron law of emulation holds. The Times and the CIA are becoming more similar with each passing year.

To apply for employment with the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, click here.

To apply for employment as a New York Times‘s reporter, editor, or deliveryman, click here.

In 1978, back when I was working for him on Capitol Hill, Senator Pat Moynihan propounded what he called “the Iron Law of Emulation.” The basic idea was that organizations in conflict with one another come to resemble one another. Because he was drawing on the work of the 19th German sociologist Georg Simmel, some on his staff used to call it, somewhat mockingly, the Iron Law of Simmelation.

But Moynihan’s point was a good one. And today, with former New York Times reporter Judith Miller on the witness stand in the trial of Scooter Libby, we can see the iron law at work in the fiercely adversarial relationship between the Times and the U.S. intelligence community.

The editors and reporters of the New York Times believe they are covering the CIA–and in fact they are–but they are also in competition with the spy agency and the resemblances between the two institutions are striking.

Both, to begin with, have a remarkably similar mission. The CIA is charged with trying to inform its clients (the White House and the rest of the executive branch) about the world around it: what is going on where, what are the looming dangers, what are the facts, and how do reliably do we know them? Much of what the New York Times does is precisely the same, except its client is not the government but the newspaper-buying American public.

Because they are caught up in certain characteristic American dysfunctions, both institutions carry out their functions with mixed results.

The CIA and the Times, for one thing, are both charter members of the cult of “diversity.” In 1995, the spy agency created an internal body called the Resources Oversight Council aimed “at improving the agency’s efforts to hire and provide career development for women, minorities, the deaf, and people with disabilities,” leading the CIA to hire more Hispanics at the very moment when it really needed more Arabic speakers.

The Times has been doing something quite similar, and damage has demonstrably been done. In 2006 the paper announced with much fanfare that an internal body known as “the diversity council” had concluded that “diversity is essential to our business future and our journalism.” But the emphasis on diversity had been in place for decades, and it was to figure in one of the worst debacles (see below) the newspaper ever endured.

Like any large elite organization the CIA and the Times must contend with mediocrity creeping in and gumming up the works. Thus, the CIA has kept incompetents in its ranks, including “anonymous”–a.k.a. Michael Scheuer, its top expert on Osama bin Laden, who despite his insistence on always “checking the checkables,” has enormous difficulty spelling proper names and who characterized bin Laden as “the most respected, loved, romantic, charismatic, and perhaps able figure in the last 150 years of Islamic history.” And “gentle,” too.

The Times, for its part, keeps an impressive daily log of its errors, spelling and otherwise, which despite an army of editors, it cannot seem to contain. For more serious instances of bias and misinterpretation, one need only recall the reporting by Walter Duranty of Stalin’s show trials and artificial famine in the 1930’s, the placement of the Holocaust on the back pages during the 1940’s, its depiction of the North Vietnamese defeat in the Tet offensive as a major victory, or turn to watchdog outfits like CAMERA for an array of contemporary documentation.

Both institutions, over the years, have had worse than bad apples in their ranks. The CIA has suffered outright turncoats like Soviet mole Aldrich Ames, who despite internal evaluations of egregious misbehavior was steadily promoted upward until he was in a position to give away the CIA’s most precious assets.

The New York Times has had its outright traitors, too, like the diversity-hire Jayson Blair, whose fictional reporting the paper was to call “a profound betrayal of trust.” During his five-year career progressing from intern to national reporter, the management of the Times received numerous warnings that the rising star was actually a comet waiting to crash. Despite such cautions, Blair steadily advanced, like Aldrich Ames, eventually reducing the Times to what it itself called “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

But in both institutions, it is not deliberate bad faith that typically creates malfunction but something else. The CIA notoriously failed to foresee the attacks of September 11 and then issued an erroneous “slam-dunk” assessment that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The problem was simply that agency analysts placed too much stock in Iraqi émigré sources who were telling them what they wanted to hear. The New York Times’s credulous treatment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal fell into the same trap.

Judith Miller was front and center. In reporting on Saddam’s burgeoning (but non-existent) WMD program, she too placed too much faith in sources who were telling her what she wanted to hear. Strikingly, in both cases, the chain of command in the CIA and the New York Times failed to ask critical questions, which only became utterly obvious–and the subject of much sanctimonious handwringing–in the incandescent glow of hindsight.

Ironically, one of the factors underpinning such maladaptive behavior is that both institutions operate behind a veil of secrecy. The CIA assiduously keeps both its methods of intelligence gathering and its internal deliberations under wraps: sources and methods, in particular, are treated as ultra-sensitive matters, disclosure of which is punishable by law.

So too with the New York Times, which, even as it calls for greater openness by the U.S. government jealously conceals its own internal workings. As with the CIA, sources and methods are treated by the Times as a matter of extraordinary sensitivity, with some of its operatives ready and willing to go to jail (Judith Miller once again!) rather than reveal who has told them what.

All of which makes the Scooter Libby trial so very compelling. A window is being opened into the internal operations of news- and intelligence-gathering at once. It is only confirming that in many of their essentials, and despite the loud protestations such a claim would elicit from both sides, the iron law of emulation holds. The Times and the CIA are becoming more similar with each passing year.

To apply for employment with the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, click here.

To apply for employment as a New York Times‘s reporter, editor, or deliveryman, click here.

Read Less




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