Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Jim Bourg/Reuters)
In his 1946 essay reviewing former Trotskyist-turned-reactionary James Burnham’s book The Managerial Revolution, George Orwell made several observations that resonate just as powerfully today as they did when they were first published.
“The real question,” he wrote, “is not whether the people who wipe their boots on us during the next fifty years are to be called managers, bureaucrats, or politicians: the question is whether capitalism, now obviously doomed, is to give way to oligarchy or to true democracy.”
Orwell recognized what many today fail to perceive: That free market capitalism is, in the words of Karl Polanyi, a “stark Utopia,” a system that does not exist, and one that would not survive for long if it ever came into existence.
But for Orwell, the question was not how (or whether) the crises of capitalism that rocked both Europe and the United States in the 20th century would be solved — the question was: what would take the place of an economic order that was clearly on its way out?
Read today, his prediction of the world to come emanates prescience.
“For quite fifty years past the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy,” Orwell argued. “The ever-increasing concentration of industrial and financial power; the diminishing importance of the individual capitalist or shareholder, and the growth of the new ‘managerial’ class of scientists, technicians, and bureaucrats; the weakness of the proletariat against the centralised state; the increasing helplessness of small countries against big ones; the decay of representative institutions and the appearance of one-party regimes based on police terrorism, faked plebiscites, etc.: all these things seem to point in the same direction.”
This year has in some ways marked the peak of these trends — trends that are currently being exploited (as they always have been) by both genuine nationalists and political opportunists looking to capitalize on the destabilizing effects of the international economic order.
Globally, the concentration of income at the very top is obscene: As a widely cited Oxfam report notes, 62 people own the same amount of wealth as half of the world’s population. The report also found that as the wealth of the global elite continues to soar, “the wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population has fallen by a trillion dollars since 2010, a drop of 38 percent.”
And such trends have not just inflicted the poorest. The middle class in the United States, for instance, has been steadily eroding over the past several decades in the face of slow growth and stagnant wages. Meanwhile, top CEOs have seen their incomes rise by over 900 percent.
People are reacting. From the rise of Donald Trump and right-wing nationalists throughout Europe to the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, people are using the influence they still have to express their contempt for a system that has failed them and their families.
Some of the discontent is undoubtedly motivated by racial animus and anti-immigrant sentiment, both of which have been preyed upon by charlatans across the globe. But it has also been motivated by class antagonism, by a general feeling that economic and political elites are making out like bandits while the public is forced to scramble for an ever-dwindling piece of the pie.
Responses to these developments by apologists for elites and by elites themselves have been varied, but all have had a common core: The United States and Europe are, contrary to popular perception, suffering from too much democracy.
The leash restraining the people, the argument goes, has been excessively loosened, and, consequently, the “ignorant masses” have wreaked havoc. More or less, the proposed solution has been to tighten the leash.
In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, James Traub calls on “elites to rise up against the ignorant masses.” They must put the people in their place with facts and reason, with the decent sense that “the mob” lacks by definition.
Traub’s was perhaps the most explicit and aggressive call to action, and, as he notes in his latest work for the same outlet, he has reaped a storm of criticism.
With a hint of regret, Traub insists that his point was misunderstood. The notion, Traub explains, that “people who take issue with the forces of globalization, whether from the left or the right, should defer to elites” is “repellent.”
This latest piece was, when it was first published, provocatively titled “Liberalism Isn’t Working.” The title has since been altered, but the core point remains: Europe and the United States, Traub argues, are experiencing “the breakdown of the liberal order.”
In Traub’s view, irrationality is prevailing over reason — noticeable in, for instance, popular disdain for “experts” — and illiberal democracy is taking the place of what was previously liberal democracy. Intolerance is replacing tolerance. Those who “can’t stand the way the world is going and want to return to a mythical golden age where women and Mexicans and refugees and gays and atheists didn’t disturb the public with their demands” are defeating those who favor diversity and free thought.
It is heartening to see Traub walk back his elitist war cry, and he is correct that liberalism in its current form — that is to say, corporate liberalism, or neoliberalism — has failed to muster an adequate response to the various crises facing global society.
But this is not because liberals have no desire to do so; it is because their ideological system is utterly bankrupt, divorced from the needs of the masses and subservient to the needs of organized wealth.
Traub notes, perhaps correctly, that President Obama’s “remote, cerebral manner has…whetted the public’s appetite for a snake-oil salesman like Trump.”
More than his “manner,” though, Obama’s ideological bent — largely shared by Hillary Clinton and other corporate Democrats — has left a vacuum into which phony populists like Trump have emerged.
And this is what Traub fails to consider: The alternative to Trumpism is not more smug, corporate liberalism that manages the decline and tempers the expectations of the masses; it is, rather, an ambitious social agenda that utilizes mass politics to create an economic and political order that is responsive to the material needs of the population.
Contrary to the urgent warnings that we are suffering from an excess of democracy, the United States and Europe have for too long been gripped by a democratic deficit.
“If we want to avert the sense of powerlessness among voters that fuels demagogy,” writes Michael Lind, “the answer is not less democracy in America, but more.”
Traub and others like him have succeeded in putting forward critiques of the movements responding to the discontent of the masses, but they have failed to criticize the economic order whose failures have sparked this discontent. As a result, they have failed to offer a compelling alternative to the surging nationalism they profess to fear.
And as Luke Savage notes in a recent piece for Jacobin, the self-styled experts have often done much worse than that.
He points to the fact that “beyond a few largely anecdotal comments about globalization, Traub offers no real analysis of the causes driving the polarization he so detests. In familiar tones, he conflates the populist right and the populist left, and characterizes anti-establishment sentiment as the product of sheer, mindless democratic stupidity.”
In effect, the expert class has — predictably — erased from view the agendas of figures like Bernie Sanders, figures who represent an alternative to both fervent nationalism and neoliberalism.
And far from putting forward radical and unworkable proposals, the ideas on which the Sanders campaign has been based have far-reaching appeal.
Ultimately, Savage concludes, “the real political schism of our time” is “not one between ‘the sane and the mindlessly angry,’ but between democrats and technocratic elites.”
It is, for instance, elite opinion, not public opinion, that stands in the way of the implementation of single-payer healthcare.
Most of the public, furthermore, believes that “major donors sway Congress more than constituents,” but it is elites — including self-styled progressives — who stand in the way of campaign finance reform.
The so-called “ignorant masses” understand that “there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies,” and that “the government doesn’t do enough for older people, poor people or children.” But it is elites whose entrenched interests undercut any attempt to remedy these trends.
There is, in short, an appetite for social democracy in the United States, but it is elites — economic and political — who stand in the way and insist that such an appetite is the result of excessive imagination.
Conservatives — including Trump — continue to fight unabashedly for the needs of corporate America, while neoliberals like President Obama and Hillary Clinton insist that progressive initiatives must be curbed in the interest of “getting things done.”
Interestingly, in his essay James Traub cites George Orwell as one of the “great exponents” of liberalism and anti-totalitarianism.
But he fails to mention what Orwell, himself, wrote about his own political motivations, which he expressed in his 1946 essay “Why I Write.”
“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936,” Orwell notes, “has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”
Needless to say, Orwell’s vision was not a hierarchical one that placed technocratic elites and self-proclaimed experts at the helm; it was one that warned of totalitarianism of all forms and proposed a more egalitarian alternative.
By ignoring this — deliberately or otherwise — and by establishing a status quo of austerity, intolerable inequality, environmental degradation, and endless war, elites have fostered the reaction they are now attempting to beat back.
But their proposed alternative is, effectively, more of the same. That, as much of the world’s population recognizes, is not enough.
“It’s not about the EU,” notes Mark Blyth in an assessment of the European economy that applies just as well to the United States. “It’s about the elites. It’s about the 1%. It’s about the fact that your parties that were meant to serve your interests have sold you down the river.”
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
Jake Johnson is an independent writer. Follow him on Twitter: @wordsofdissent
Photo Credit: Emily Lin Scott/Flickr Creative Commons
Once on a flight home to San Francisco for a visit from college in Boston, I sat next to an anarchist couple in their 60s. They were dressed all in black with matching fedoras over long, gray hair, and came armed with giant sketchpads. They were warm, happy people, who spent the trip sketching and encouraging each other. When not drawing, they turned their attention to me, and we chatted, pleasantly exchanging conflicting political and artistic ideals. They told me they admired my studies; I said I admired their sketches. I don’t believe any of us were lying.
Ten years later, in the English class I now teach at Brooklyn College, we were discussing Colson Whitehead’s “City Limits.” The conversation was animated—New York natives and transplants alike connected to Whitehead’s meditation on the changeable nature of the five boroughs. As we considered the many ways in which the city was re-inventing itself now, one student, a native of Bed-Stuy, said her parents were selling their house. She added, with a bemused shrug, that “I guess now people want brownstones in Bed-Stuy.”
I remember having this reaction on the phone with a friend a few years after my interaction with my anarchist seatmates. Then, she had told me they were building condos in a squalid area of downtown that had been re-branded as “SOMA.”
“SOMA?!” we had both laughed in disbelief. Calling that stretch of empty warehouses, urban crime, and homelessness near the train depot by a trendy acronym seemed like nothing more than a crude marketing ploy. And yet, only a few short years later, those condos, like the Bed-Stuy brownstones, were selling for millions of dollars; the tech takeover of San Francisco had begun in earnest.
Unlike New York, San Francisco has a somewhat parochial history. Each new group entering the city can be singled out, and conclusions can be drawn about that population’s contribution to the texture of the city as a whole. To name but a few, there were ’49ers in the gold rush, the beats, the hippies, the gays, and now the techies. And then, of course, there have been influxes of various ethnic and immigrant groups that have played a significant role in shaping the city.
Something many of these movements had in common was a flocking to a city where thought could be freer, conventions more challenged. One need only skim through the great chroniclers of San Francisco—John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, William Vollmann, Gary Kamiya, Armistead Maupin, Amy Tan, Rebecca Solnit—to glean that the allure of San Francisco is not any one promise or movement in particular, but a revolutionary spirit that the city has always abided, one ideal after another.
It would take a much longer essay than this to really delve into the various transplant movements in San Francisco and how each was received and embedded in the city’s existing culture. But if we consider only a few of the most instantly recognizable ones, it’s easy to see how each vociferous counter-culture was able to change the city’s dialogue and image while remaining somewhat insular. Where were the hippies? The Haight. The gays? The Castro. The beats? North Beach.
I present this cordoning off as a mere fact—not to say that those challenging the status quo should keep themselves to themselves, but that one of the ways San Francisco has been repeatedly successful in accommodating strong-convicted and sometimes conflicting viewpoints is that each has been able to stake out its own little space without being forced to conform or compete with its neighbors.
In many ways, it makes a lot of sense that the tech movement has its roots in the Bay Area. Where else but San Francisco would a corporation take pride in thinking “different,” or bright young dropouts be accepted as pioneering geniuses instead of family screw-ups? On its face, startup culture seems a natural fit for the city’s other transplant movements—it claims to buck convention, be curious, and create a community of like-minded people.
But, as we know, the tech community has not “merely” gentrified “SOMA” and contributed its new voice to the larger conversation in San Francisco. With its attendant wealth and heady feelings of power, the tech boom is not-so-slowly colonizing the entire city, driving out whole communities and stamping out the possibility of pushback to its ideals from other populations. The harm of the tech takeover is not that this movement has turned out to be more square, nerdy, or moneyed than the city’s other revolutionary movements, but that under the guise of “improving” the city, it is literally bulldozing physical space for living, debate, and the exchange of ideas, thus ridding the city of its generations-long ability to support its local residents and receive non-conformers. The Tenderloin, a hub for cutting-edge social programming since single room occupancy hotels were established for family-less prostitutes after the 1906 earthquake, is now the subject of myopic open letters accusing it of being a blight on the sort of San Francisco the tech industry desires.
The tech takeover is also fundamentally changing a city that, not so long ago, was considered an “island of diversity.” Startlingly, it’s projected that by 2040, San Francisco County will have a non-Hispanic white majority—jumping from 42 percent in 2013 to 52 percent in 25 years. The percentage of Asians is expected to fall from 34 percent to 28 percent, and the Latino population from 15 percent to 12 percent. The city’s already-declining African-American population, currently at just 6 percent, is expected to remain about the same. How will these shifting demographics further erode what once made the city great?
On a plane a few weeks ago from New York to San Francisco, I chatted with my seatmate, a nice woman from Long Island on her way to visit her son, who works in tech. By the time we had reached cruising altitude I knew about his education, his career goals, and the current housing hunt he and his fiancée were on for a place to accommodate their planned family of four.
This was a genuinely kind woman who spoke well of her son. A man who is, by her account, successful and in a happy relationship, and she is rightly proud of him. But our conversation introduced no viewpoint I had never encountered before, and was merely a way to idly pass time talking about nothing but the particulars of one’s own success. It brought in stark relief my experience 10 years ago, when the topics of conversation had been public funding for the arts, the difference between a democracy and a republic, and anecdotes about Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The contrast makes me wonder how often in the future I will encounter fellow travelers like that couple, and be confronted with people who think differently than I do and talk about subjects I do not normally consider. Or if whether, someday soon, they’ll disappear from planes to San Francisco altogether, when there is no longer a single neighborhood at the flight’s destination willing to keep them around.
Emma Bushnell is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Bodega Magazine, Bustle, Full Stop, and elsewhere. She is completing her MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College and is at work on a novel.
The path to marriage equality did not begin, of course, with Evan Wolfson’s Harvard Law School paper. The very fact that Wolfson could conceive of such a paper was itself testament to the efforts of countless gay and lesbian advocates before him, operating in far more difficult circumstances.
A good place to start in assessing the prehistory of the marriage equality movement is the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay organizations in the United States. Founded in Los Angeles in 1950, the Mattachine Society ultimately included chapters around the country, and in the 1950s and 1960s was the nation’s leading gay organization. It took its name from masked critics of ruling monarchs in medieval France. At its inception, the very idea of a gay organization was so radical that the group met only in secret.
The Mattachine Society’s most illustrious member was Frank Kameny, a Harvard-educated astronomer who was fired by the US Army Map Office in 1957 when an FBI investigation revealed that he was gay. Kameny appealed his firing all the way to the Supreme Court, without success. But the experience prompted him to become one of the nation’s first openly gay activists. He founded the Washington, DC, chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1960, and also launched a systematic attack on the federal government’s discrimination against gay and lesbian employees. Notwithstanding his lack of legal training, Kameny operated as a “lawyer without portfolio,” assisting hundreds of employees in administrative appeals of their dismissals and shepherding their cases through the courts. With the support of the ACLU, he won his first victory in 1965, when the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit reversed the Civil Service Commission’s disqualification of Bruce Scott from the civil service on grounds of “immoral conduct.” In 1975, after many more battles with Kameny, the Civil Service Commission reversed its policy of categorically disqualifying gay and lesbian applicants. Kameny also took on the Defense Department for denying security clearances to gays and lesbians, and in 1975 it, too, abandoned that practice.
The first challenge Kameny and the Mattachine Society faced was simply to be free to associate as gay men. Sodomy statutes made intimate relations between same-sex couples a crime. Psychiatrists considered homosexuality a mental illness. Admitting publicly that one was gay or lesbian could result in ridicule, harassment, assault, isolation from one’s family, the loss of a job, or worse. Most gays and lesbians understandably chose to keep their sexual orientation hidden.
The invisibility of the “closet” made mobilizing for lesbian and gay rights all but impossible. Thus, the first strategic step toward achieving equality was, as gay rights scholar and advocate Bill Eskridge has called it, a “politics of protection.” The aim was to create space for gays and lesbians to come together without fear of official harassment. Gay and lesbian community centers, bars, and bathhouses all served this function. The Stonewall riots of 1969, in which gay patrons at a Greenwich Village bar turned on police and collectively asserted their right to be out, gay, and together in a public place, were the most dramatic and historic manifestation of this initial phase.
The next step was to make it safe—or at least, less costly—to “come out” by publicly identifying oneself as lesbian or gay. Gay rights groups fought for legal protections that would make it more likely that gay men and lesbians might feel sufficiently comfortable to identify themselves publicly. The ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, for example, invoked the First Amendment to protect the rights of students to form gay and lesbian student associations, first in colleges and later in high schools. And gay rights advocates argued for expanding anti-discrimination laws to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing, and other fields.
In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis transformed the gay community. Many men were in effect outed by the disease itself as it afflicted them or their lovers. The life-or-death necessity for research and treatment spawned the creation of new advocacy organizations, such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, as gay men and lesbians increasingly recognized the pressing need for nondiscriminatory health services, and came to understand that only through political organizing could they convince the government to invest sufficient resources in developing effective treatments. In a tragic but real sense, gay rights came out and of age during the AIDS crisis, as growing numbers of gays and lesbians proclaimed their sexual orientation publicly, joined political associations, and en- gaged in collective action to demand equal care and respect.
The AIDS crisis also set the stage for the fight for marriage equality. It urgently revealed the many problems that gay couples confronted when the states did not recognize their relationships. Gay employees whose partners were sick and dying could not get health insurance for them through their work. Gay men were denied visitation with their partners at hospitals because they had no officially sanctioned relation- ship with the patient. They often were not authorized to make end-of-life decisions for their partners. They faced difficulties dealing with funerals, estates, and the like, again because their relationships, even if longstanding, lacked formal status. The importance of “relationship recognition” became painfully evident, and the press ran many stories about the obstacles gay men faced as they navigated the ends of their partners’ lives.
When advocates began to address the myriad problems gay couples faced in dealing with AIDS, they did not at first demand marriage, still an unthinkable option. Instead, they requested lesser forms of domestic partnership recognition and benefits. They began by approaching sympathetic private corporations, universities, and cities. Over time the concept of same-sex domestic partnerships took hold in a wide range of private and public settings. The same pattern is evident with respect to legal protection from discrimination.
These developments, vitally important on their own terms, also contributed to making a marriage equality campaign possible. The care and support offered, and devastating losses suffered, by surviving partners became familiar to many straight Americans. As discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was more widely prohibited, gay men and lesbians were more free to come out. It became increasingly common for straight people to learn that a family member, friend, colleague, or acquaintance was gay or lesbian—and deeply human and vulnerable. That knowledge in turn made it less likely that straight people would demonize, and more likely that they would empathize with, gay men and lesbians.
Some of the most important early gay rights advocacy focused not on legal and political change but on cultural transformation. In the midst of the AIDS crisis, gay activists founded Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, now known simply as GLAAD. Their mission was to promote accurate and positive portrayals of gay men and lesbians in the news and entertainment media. Among other accomplishments, GLAAD helped persuade CBS’s 60 Minutes to suspend commentator Andy Rooney for three months without pay when he made homophobic remarks on air. It blocked a planned television show to be hosted by Dr. Laura Schlesinger, a radio talk show host who had described homosexuality as a “biological mistake.” GLAAD also encouraged comedian Ellen DeGeneres to have the character she played on her television show, Ellen, come out as lesbian, and helped to convince the news media to shift their terminology from “homosexual” to “gay and lesbian,” and from “sexual preference” to “sexual orientation.”
There is no precise way to measure the effects of these wide-ranging efforts. But nearly all of the advocates, lawyers, and activists with whom I spoke agreed that each of the developments summarized here provided an important foundation for the marriage equality campaign. They helped make it possible for Evan Wolfson to write his law school paper, and for the many initiatives that would be necessary, inside and outside of courts, before the right to marriage equality that Wolfson envisioned could be realized.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014)
All the Light We Cannot See, a historical novel by Anthony Doerr, set during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II, is a runaway best seller (it remains on the New York Times Best Sellers list after 97 weeks). It has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Australian International Book Award, and was shortlisted for the National Book Award. The American Library Association awarded Doerr its highest honor, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.
Cover of All the Light We Cannot See
Doerr (born in Cleveland in 1973) is the author of two previous collections of short fiction, The Shell Collector (2002) andMemory Wall (2010), a novel, About Grace(2004), and a memoir, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World (2007).
All the Light We Cannot See opens during the US bombing of Saint-Malo, a historic, walled port city in Brittany on the northwestern coast of France, in August of 1944—two months after D-Day. The narrative then backtracks ten years to 1934. In a time-worn “Romeo and Juliet” plot, the story follows the lives of the two principal characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a Frenchwoman eventually fighting for the Resistance, who is totally blind; and Werner Pfennig, a German soldier and electronics expert who ends up in France as a member of the Wehrmacht.
In Marie-Laure, Doerr wanted to create a heroine who loves to read and loves the sea. He conducted extensive research on the visually impaired. Blind from the age of six, Marie-Laure is fortunate to have a father who is compassionate and loving, designing intellectually challenging puzzles for her and encouraging her to read classic French novels in Braille. She grows into a self-reliant young woman, undeterred by her handicap. When World War II comes, she doesn’t hesitate to join the Resistance to the German forces, taking the code name “the whelk”—an aggressive little snail.
In a novel that takes human empathy as its central theme, Doerr writes with sensitivity and compassion of the plight of refugees, as Marie-Laure and her father join the mass exodus of Parisians fleeing the German occupation. In the most difficult circumstances, Doerr believes, it is important for people to hold onto their basic humanity.
Werner Pfenning, the German soldier, is an anti-hero, a familiar type in American literature, struggling in a world without meaning. He is deeply conflicted, repulsed by the cruelty of Nazi racial practices, yet willing to shout “Heil, Hitler!” on cue to further his ambitions.
Werner is an orphan from Zollverein, a coal mining complex in an economically deprived region of Germany, which has no future. His innate moral decency was formed in his childhood. He and his sister Jutta were raised by a kind foster mother. Both listened to forbidden radio broadcasts about Nazi atrocities.
Werner’s experience as a cadet in an elite paramilitary school for Hitler Youth, and the school’s cruel curriculum, will be of great interest to readers. Forced into the German military, Werner’s job is to identify enemy radio signals. The partisans broadcasting them are then hunted down and killed. Werner, suffering a profound sense of alienation, is haunted by the specter of their faces.
While Doerr creates compelling characters, the story feels divorced from its settings. There is little sense of the historical process—for example, that German life changed in any fundamental way under the Nazis, particularly in the German coal mining area where Werner is raised. In Brittany, the author introduces some colorful scenes portraying the neighborhood housewives organizing to help the Resistance. But even here, he does not capture the heartbeat of Saint-Malo.
Doerr presents war as a moral issue—a struggle between good and evil. The Nazis—and, as we shall see, ISIS—are evil and their myths stem from evil. What, then, causes evil? This is the question that Doerr cannot answer, and it damages his fiction. For example, expanding the rogues’ gallery of evil-doers, Doerr takes some cheap shots at the Soviet forces. Red Army soldiers make a brief appearance, drunk and foul-smelling, only to rape Werner’s sister.
Interviewed in Publisher’s Weekly, Doerr said he wanted readers to learn “that war is more complicated than they might have thought, that there were civilians on both sides making really complicated moral decisions.” This is fairly banal stuff.
In Doerr’s worldview there are neither powerful economic forces nor any ambitions of the competing major capitalist powers that would help explain the war.
A major defect of the novel is Doerr’s inability to analyze the roots of the catastrophe of the Second World War. Interviewed for the American Library Association, Doerr elaborated his view of history: “History is about studying how, when, and where large numbers of human beings fell under the spell of various myths,” he said. He elevates myth to the level of a titanic force that drives history.
Expanding on this conception in another interview, Doerr blames myth for the rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria): “Myths are still used to foment nationalism in all sorts of places, and the Internet is being used to transmit myths in much the same way radio was used in the 1930s and 1940s.” ISIS extremists “upload acts of horrifying violence to YouTube to wage psychological terror,” he told the interviewer.
Another critical problem in the novel is Doerr’s use of the radio as a communicator of myth. Employing the postmodern technique of internal paratext (i.e. text-within-a-text), Nazi propaganda is broadcast throughout the novel, e.g., “Only through the hottest fires can purification be achieved. Only through the harshest tests can God’s chosen rise.”
The novel’s dominant myth surrounds the “Sea of Flames,” a 133-carat diamond the size of a pigeon’s egg that carries an ancient curse: anyone in possession of the diamond will live forever while everyone dear to her or him will experience tragedy or death. The Sea of Flames drives the dramatic tension in the novel. The diamond is the subject of an intense pursuit by Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, the Nazi villain.
A cursed jewel has long been a stock element in second-rate movies. Did the Sea of Flames cause the American bombardment, the arrest of Marie-Laure’s father by the Gestapo and all the heroine’s other misfortunes? Doerr keeps us guessing.
Writers and film directors have long known how to use blind orphan children and virtuous, endangered heroines to milk the sympathies of an audience. Various trends in contemporary fiction, with facile, postmodern elements, easily absorb the genre of melodrama, popular in the nineteenth century. In the novel’s climactic rescue scene, after a remarkable series of coincidences, Werner responds to Marie-Laure’s desperate call for help broadcast over the radio, saving her from the clutches of von Rumpel, who would murder her to get his hands on the Sea of Flames.
The clear distinction between “good” and “evil” and the tightly structured, just-in-time rescue format in melodrama suit Doerr’s purposes.
The novel also suffers artistically from Doerr’s reliance on fashionable narrative techniques. The non-linear narrative moves forward in short chapters, out of order chronologically, giving, intentionally or not, a fragmented view of reality, and forcing the reader to flip back and forth and participate in the development of the story. Some readers have found this annoying.
Intertextuality is the postmodern technique of referencing or re-telling other literary works. The novel’s title is a reference to the biblical story of Jesus healing the blind man. Doerr’s text, “a world full of light” echoes the biblical description of Jesus as “the light of the world.” The blind man is healed by faith. Werner, suffering from spiritual blindness, is exhorted to “open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
Werner experiences a spiritual awakening and transformation. Through his love and his violent death, he is transformed into a Christ-like figure: “His soul glowed with some fundamental kindness.”
Anthony Doerr’s strong suit is his attention to the theme of human empathy. The writing’s beauty is impressive, particularly the descriptions of the Breton coast and marine life. He creates memorable characters and intricate plots, but the novel feels contrived, relying on coincidences and props, e.g., the role of radio and the Sea of Flames. He thereby avoids facing the great historical issues behind the war. Doerr has largely created a fantasy world and a phony war.
The legacy of World War II is still with us. France today faces the growth in influence of the neo-fascist National Front (FN) headed by Marine Le Pen; while in Germany, certain reactionary historians are attempting to rehabilitate Hitler’s reputation. Humanity faces a gathering storm—the threat of another world war. Doerr has nothing to offer his readers about the tremendous historical impact of this war, except spiritual panacea. His approach, focusing on the supposed moral complexity of personal choice, does not represent a broad social and historical view.
Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone (published posthumously in 1947), about a Berlin working class couple who issue a call for resistance to the Second World War and to Hitler via the medium of handwritten postcards, has been adapted several times for film and television (in both East and West Germany during the 1960s and 1970s).
Fallada’s novel gained renewed attention following its translation into English in 2009. The great success of the book—the translation was a “surprise UK bestseller” in 2010, selling hundreds of thousands of copies—reflects a strong interest in the era of fascism and a craving for truth about history.
The author’s aim was not to reconstruct the real case of Otto and Elise Hampel, from Berlin’s Wedding district, who were executed in 1943 by the Nazis. Rather he used their remarkable story as the framework of a social portrait of the German capital under Hitler, drawing the picture of many characters from different milieus. Each has his or her own point of view and attitude towards Nazism.
Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson in Alone in Berlin
The real-life Hampels have become in the book and film the fictional Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Anna (Emma Thompson) Quangel. Other characters often come from the petty bourgeoisie, including those who have experienced social decline and deliberately placed themselves at the service of the Nazis.
For example, there is the ruined bar manager Persicke (Uwe Preuss), who got back on his feet thanks to the Nazi Party. Two of his sons are now in the SS [the murderous Nazi paramilitary organization]. His youngest, Baldur (Sammy Scheuritzel), is a candidate for a Napola [National Political Institute of Education], an elite school for young fascist leaders. The son of Eva Kluge (Katrin Pollitt), the post office employee, is also with the SS. When she learns, however, that he has been involved in killing Jewish children at the front, she breaks off all contact. He is no longer her son.
Frau Kluge has long ago kicked out her husband, Enno (Lars Rudolph). He is unable to hold down a job and gambles away his wife’s money on the horses. He doesn’t want anything to do with politics. But he knows a Jewish doctor who, out of fear, writes sick notes for anyone who asks for one. Massive speedup has been implemented in the factories. Those who give the impression they are not devoting all their energy to “ultimate victory” (“Endsieg”), quickly find themselves clapped in a concentration camp.
The unemployed petty criminal Emil Barkhausen (Rainer Egger), who ruthlessly extorts people and is not afraid of betraying them to the Gestapo, is aware of the causes of the anxiety: “Most people today are afraid, basically everyone, because they’re all up to something forbidden, one way or another, and are worried that someone will get wind of it”. After Otto Quangel learns of his son’s death and expresses his grief to Barkhausen, the latter immediately tries to extort him, using the threat of the camps.
Fallada’s nuanced picture of daily life in the Third Reich shows the falsity of the thesis of Daniel Goldhagen and his supporters, holding that all Germans uniformly supported Hitler and the extermination of the Jews. The latest remake of Alone in Berlin (directed by Swiss actor Vincent Pérez) also rejects a collective guilt thesis. “I wanted to present this fear which was omnipresent. It was so thick you could cut it with a knife”, the director said.
Gestapo inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl) takes his time finding out who is behind the amateurishly written postcards with their anti-Hitler slogans. He is convinced the postcards will not be passed on. Everyone will report them to the police—out of fear, rather than loyalty to the Führer. The guillotine stands out symbolically toward the end of the film (the Hampels were beheaded). The following scene shows a tenement building with countless empty windows.
Daniel Brühl and Gleeson
In the novel, this fear has a pre-history. Almost every adult in the Weimar Republic period (1919-33) had contact with people who were later regarded as “enemies of the people” under the Nazi regime. The German Communist Party (KPD) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) were parties with millions of members and sympathisers: workers, artisans, intellectuals, journalists and artists, including many Jews. Jews could be found in all social circles. Virtually every adult was vulnerable to official persecution at some point in the Nazi period, if one only dug deep enough into his or her past.
The scene in Fallada’s book between the prominent film actor and his lawyer is telling. The actor is thankful that he can continue performing under Hitler despite the fact his previous directors were often Jewish. He had also acted in pacifist films. The lawyer is an old school friend. When the movie star finds one of the Quangels’ postcards in the hallway and shows it to the lawyer, distrust suddenly arises. Each fears the other has laid a trap. They give the postcards to a Nazi functionary and their anger is now directed against those who wrote the anti-Hitler messages.
This concrete social mechanism of terror and the realism and sophistication of the novel in general are missing from the film. It focuses entirely on the couple, the Quangels, well performed by Gleeson and Thompson. The environment recedes into the background, is sterile and resembles a stage set. Many important episodes in the novel are missing. Characters have been deleted or smoothed over. The KPD underground resistance, in the environs of which Fallada locates some of his characters, has been carefully removed from the film.
Persicke’s telling history is presented in a positively false light. His glorification of the Führer in the book is accompanied by a profound social contempt for all those weaker than he is. The figure of Baldur also jars in the film. Perez turns the fanatical Hitler Youth leader into a fairly harmless young person in a youth organisation uniform, who is embarrassed when the elderly, Jewish Frau Rosenthal (Monique Chaumette) reminds him that as a child he always liked to eat her cakes.
The character of Escherich is interesting. One can imagine him as a criminologist during the Weimar Republic. Fallada leaves no doubt that his social indifference, his hunter’s nature was decisive for his Nazi career. Emotionless and with perseverance, he chases his “game”, the unknown postcard writer.
In Pérez’s film version, the cynical Gestapo officer, feared on all sides, is turned into a victim of violence. Only out of fear of his brutal superiors does he act violently. Before he takes desperate action, he throws the Quangels’ postcards out the open window of his office. Do the postcards fluttering outside, an image with which the film closes (the scene does not exist in the novel), indicate a twinge of conscience on Escherich’s part?
Each previous adaptation of the Fallada novel inevitably reflected a certain Zeitgeist [spirit of the time]. In the 1975 West German film (directed by Alfred Vohrer), Anna was the stronger character and the initiator of the postcards protest, in the spirit of the women’s movement of the day. The detailed five-hour, three-part television miniseries made in 1970 in East Germany (Hans-Joachim Kasprzik) made concessions to the Stalinist state censor. Otto Quangel was depicted as politically immature because he did not join the political opposition of the Stalinist Communist Party but instead acted as an apolitical loner.
Alone in Berlin
The new Franco-German production appears at a time when far-right movements such as the National Front in France and Pegida and Alternative for Germany are on the rise and state violence increasingly dominates everyday life. Undoubtedly, the film is a concerned response. Today’s youth should know the history of the Quangels, argues leading actor Daniel Brühl. At the same time, we are witnessing today an enormous intensification of social inequality.
Among the most notable scenes in Alone in Berlin is one pointing to economic inequality in the Nazi state: Anna Quangel, a member of the Nazi Women’s Association, visits a wealthy “people’s comrade” (Katarina Schüttler) in her luxury apartment and asks her, as she would anyone else, to comply with the general obligation to work. The women is indignant at the arrogance. Her husband, a senior Nazi official, ensures that Anna is dismissed from the Women’s Association.
It may sound surprising when Brühl explains that the film is innovative in featuring no die-hard Nazis. In fact, even in Fallada’s novel there are no figures corresponding to the usual Nazi stereotypes advocating an irrational “Master Race” and exhibiting the individual, sadistic lust to torture people.
What distinguishes the Nazi youth Baldur Persicke and the other petty-bourgeois characters, whom one could well imagine participating in today’s Pegida or the National Front, is the social attitude aptly and ironically described by Leon Trotsky in his brilliant essay “What is National Socialism?”, written shortly after the Nazi takeover in 1933: “What must be done in order to improve things? First of all, throttle those who are underneath”.
One can sense new social questions and emphases being explored in the film. Perhaps there were many more who thought like the Quangels. But ultimately, unfortunately, Perez’ effort to remodel Fallada’s realistic and multifaceted novel into a pacifist appeal for individual moral courage fails to convince.
Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City explores the connection between isolation and creativity. In this extract she examines its role in the work of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and others, and suggests we should all be a little less frightened of being alone…
Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or 17th or 43rd floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure.
You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others.
Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability to find as much intimacy as is desired.
I know what that feels like. I’ve been a citizen of loneliness. I’ve done my time in empty rooms. A few years back I moved to New York, drifting through a succession of sublet apartments. A new relationship had abruptly turned to dust and though I had friends in the city I was paralysed by loneliness. The feelings I had were so raw and overwhelming I often wished I could find a way of losing myself altogether until the intensity diminished.
The revelation of loneliness, the omnipresent, unanswerable feeling that I was in a state of lack, that I didn’t have what people were supposed to, and that this was down to some grave and no doubt externally unmistakable failing in my person: all this had quickened lately, the unwelcome consequence of being so summarily dismissed.
I don’t suppose it was unrelated, either, to the fact that I was keeling towards the midpoint of my 30s, an age at which female aloneness is no longer socially sanctioned and carries with it a persistent whiff of strangeness, deviance and failure.
The experience was acutely painful, and yet as the months wore by I became weirdly fascinated by it. Loneliness, Dennis Wilson once sang, is a very special place, and I started to wonder if he might be right, if there wasn’t more to it than meets the eye – if, in fact, loneliness didn’t drive one to consider some of the larger questions of what it is to be alive.
There were things that burned away at me, not only as a private individual, but also as a citizen of our century, our pixellated age. What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty?
I was by no means the only person who’d puzzled over these questions. All kinds of writers, artists, film-makers and songwriters have explored the subject of loneliness, attempting to gain purchase on it, to tackle the issues that it provokes. But I was at the time beginning to fall in love with images, to find a solace in them I didn’t find elsewhere, and so I conducted the majority of my investigations within the visual realm. I sought out artists who seemed to articulate or be troubled by loneliness, particularly as it manifests in cities.
The obvious place to start was with Edward Hopper, that rangy, taciturn man. Born at the tail end of the 19th century, he spent his working life documenting life in the electrically uneasy metropolis. Though he was often resistant to the notion that loneliness was his metier, his central theme, his scenes of men and women in deserted cafes, offices and hotel lobbies remain signature images of urban isolation.
Hopper’s people are often alone, or in fraught, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress. But this isn’t the only reason his work is so deeply associated with loneliness. He also succeeds in capturing something of how it feels, by way of the strange construction of his city layouts.
Take Nighthawks, which the novelist Joyce Carol Oates once described as “our most poignant, ceaselessly replicated romantic image of American loneliness”. It shows a diner at night: an urban aquarium, a glass cell. Inside, in their livid yellow prison, are four figures. A spivvy couple, a counter-boy in a white uniform, and a man sitting with his back to the window, the open crescent of his jacket pocket the darkest point on the canvas. No one is talking. No one is looking at anyone else. Is the diner a refuge for the isolated, a place of succour, or does it serve to illustrate the disconnection that proliferates in cities? The painting’s brilliance derives from its instability, its refusal to commit.
I’d been looking at it on laptop screens for years before I finally saw it in person,at the Whitney one sweltering October afternoon. The colour hit me first. Green walls, green shadows falling in spikes and diamonds on the green sidewalk. There is no shade in existence that more powerfully communicates urban alienation than this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity, and which is inextricably associated with the nocturnal city of glass towers, empty illuminated offices and neon signs.
But it was the window that really stopped me in my tracks: a bubble of glass that separated the diner from the street, curving sinuously back against itself. It was impossible to gaze through into the luminous interior without experiencing a swift apprehension of loneliness, of how it might feel to be shut out, standing alone in the cooling air.
Glass is a persistent symbol of loneliness, and for good reason. Almost as soon as I arrived in the city, I had the sense that I was trapped behind glass. I couldn’t reach out or make contact, and at the same time I felt dangerously exposed, vulnerable to judgment, particularly in situations where being alone felt awkward or wrong, where I was surrounded by couples or groups.
This is what Hopper replicates with his strange architectural configurations: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with near-unbearable exposure. “I probably am a lonely one,” he once told an interviewer, and his paintings radiate an empathic understanding of what that’s like. You might think this would make his work distressing, but on the contrary I found it eased the burden of my own feelings. Someone else had grappled with loneliness, and had found beauty, even value in it.
Loneliness doesn’t only affect the solitary. It can also prey on people who have what seem like highly populated lives. This is the case with Andy Warhol, who was almost never without a glittering entourage and yet whose work is surprisingly eloquent on isolation and problems of attachment, issues he struggled with lifelong.
Warhol’s art patrols the space between people, conducting a grand philosophical investigation into closeness and distance, intimacy and estrangement. Like many lonely people, he was an inveterate hoarder, making and surrounding himself with objects, barriers against the demands of human intimacy. Terrified of physical contact, he rarely left the house without an armoury of cameras and tape recorders, using them to broker and buffer interactions: behaviour that has light to shed on how we deploy technology in our own century of so-called connectivity.
Even as a little boy, Warhol was notable for his skill at drawing and his painful shyness: a pale, slightly otherworldly child, who fantasised about renaming himself Andy Morningstar. His parents were Ruthenian immigrants, and he was passionately close to his mother, particularly when at the age of seven he contracted rheumatic fever, followed by St Vitus’s Dance, an alarming disorder characterised by involuntary movements of the limbs.
This spell of social withdrawal left its mark, as did the experience of being betrayed by his own body. As an adult, Warhol was hampered by an absolute belief in his own physical abhorrence: his bulbous nose and receding hair; his strikingly white skin, covered in liver-coloured blotches. What he most wanted was to be desired by one of the beautiful boys on whom he developed serial crushes, a breed exemplified by the poised and wickedly glamorous Truman Capote – who described his suitor cruelly as “a hopeless born loser, the loneliest, most friendless person I’d ever met in my life”.
In the 1960s, just as he was making a name for himself as a Pop artist, Warhol found a novel way of handling his problems with intimacy. He bought a television at Macy’s: an RCA 19-inch black-and-white set. Able to conjure or dismiss company at the touch of a button, he found he cared much less about getting close to other people, a process he’d found so hurtful in the past.
It was the beginning of a passionate affair with machines. Over the years, he fell for a range of devices, from the stationary 16mm Bolex on which he recorded theScreen Tests of the 1960s to the Polaroid camera that was his permanent companion at parties in the 1980s. Part of the appeal was undoubtedly having something to hide behind in public. Acting as servant or companion to the machine was another route to invisibility, a mask-cum-prop like his wig and glasses.
But Warhol also used machines to buffer his interactions with other people. Filming, taping and photographing meant he could possess people without risk: a strategy of enormous appeal to the lonely, who fear rejection almost as intensely as they desire intimacy.
In this, as in so many things, he was the herald of our own era. His attachment prefigures our rapturous, narcissistic fixation with phones and computers; the enormous devolution of our emotional and practical lives to technological apparatuses of one kind or another. I understood exactly why he called his tape recorder his wife. I would have been lost without my MacBook, which promised to bring connection and in the meantime filled the vacuum left by love.
Loneliness can wed people to machines, and it can also drive them away from the world. The lonely disappear in plain sight, retreating into their apartments because of sickness or bereavement, mental illness or the persistent, unbearable burden of shyness, of not knowing how to impress themselves into society.
If anyone can be said to have worked from this place, it’s the outsider artist and hospital janitor Henry Darger, who was born in Chicago in 1892. Darger’s life illuminates the social forces that produce isolation – and the way the imagination can work to resist it.
For decades Darger lived alone in a boarding house room crammed with hoarded rubbish. In 1972 he became ill and was moved unwillingly to a Catholic mission. When his room was cleared, it was discovered to contain hundreds of paintings, of almost supernatural radiance.
These baffling, beautiful collages were populated by soldiers and naked little girls with penises. Some had charming, fairytale elements: clouds with faces and winged creatures sporting in the sky. Others showed exquisitely staged and coloured scenes of mass torture, complete with delicately painted pools of scarlet blood. Together, they described a coherent otherworld: the Realms of the Unreal, site of a devastating civil war between forces of good and evil.
Since his death, theories about Darger have proliferated, put forward by an impassioned chorus of art historians, academics and psychologists. These voices are by no means convergent, but speaking they have established Darger as an outsider artist nonpareil: untutored, compulsive and almost certainly mentally ill. Over the years, he’s been posthumously diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia and declared a paedophile or serial killer, an accusation that has proved enduring despite an absolute lack of evidence.
It seemed to me that this second act of Darger’s life compounded the isolation of the first. The things he made have served as lightning rods for other people’s fears and fantasies about isolation. But what this pathologising elides is the damage wreaked on individuals like Darger by society: the role that structures such as families, schools and jobs play in any person’s experience of isolation.
Like many lonely people, Darger’s childhood was full of shattered attachments and broken ties. His mother died when he was four. His father was too ill to care for him, and so he was sent to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, where extreme violence was common. After escaping, he worked in the city’s hospitals, where he spent nearly six decades rolling bandages and sweeping floors. Intelligent and talented, he was deprived of both love and an education, and in his entire life had only one friend.
He built the world of the Realms out of almost nothing, against extraordinary odds. I realised this most forcibly when I visited the recreation of his room in a Chicago museum. It was packed with art materials: pencil stubs made usable by being jammed into syringes; piles of children’s paints and crayons; broken elastic bands mended with tape. In all his life, Darger’s income never exceeded $3,000 a year, and yet he had accumulated these resources, painstakingly gathered from among the discards, the leavings of the city.
Why did he spend his life creating a universe of such violence and beauty? There is a theory that loneliness stems from a profound sense of disintegration, caused by just the kind of broken childhood Darger suffered. It’s a longing not just for love, but for integration, for wholeness. Now look again at Darger’s pictures: the unleashed forces of good and evil brought painstakingly together, into a single field, a single frame. Insane? I don’t think so. It’s the work of someone absolutely alone, struggling with all their might to make sense of suffering and disorder.
You can show what loneliness looks like, and you can also take up arms against it, making things that serve explicitly as communication devices against censorship and alienation. This was the driving motivation of David Wojnarowicz, a still under-known American artist and writer, whose courageous, extraordinary body of work did more than anything to release me from the feeling that in my solitude I was shamefully alone.
Like Darger, Wojnarowicz had a brutal childhood. As a small boy in the 1950s, he and his two siblings were kidnapped by their father, an abusive alcoholic who took them to live in the suburbs of New Jersey. The Universe of the Neatly Clipped Lawn, David called it – a place where physical and psychic violence against women and children could be carried out without repercussions.
By 15, he was turning $10 tricks in Times Square, and by 17 had left home entirely. He almost starved during his homeless years. Sometimes he was raped or drugged by the men who offered him money; sometimes he stayed in welfare hotels and derelict buildings, or with a group of transvestites by the Hudson River.
In 1973, he prised himself off the streets, though the legacy of shame and isolation never fully dispersed. He came out as gay, and felt immediately lighter, albeit acutely aware of the weight of antagonism stacked against him, the hatred lurking everywhere for a man who loved men and was not ashamed of the fact.
It was in this period that he began to make art. Photographs of a man in a paper mask of Arthur Rimbaud, wandering the meat markets and bus stations of New York. Lurid, intricate paintings that look like maps of some mythic realm. A film of a drag queen walking slowly into a lake; graffiti of burning houses and choking cows. Within a handful of years he became one of the stars of the 1980s East Village art scene, alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Nan Goldin.
What happened to him? Aids happened. In 1988 he was diagnosed with Aids, then a death sentence. His first reaction was intense loneliness, combined with absolute rage against the bigoted politicians who blocked funding and education, the public figures who called for people with Aids to be tattooed with their infection status or quarantined on islands. Stigmatisation: the cruel process by which society works to exclude people considered undesirable, whether because of race or poverty or illness or a thousand other factors.
Stigmatisation is yet another driver of loneliness, reducing a person from a human being to the bearer of something polluting or repulsive. Wojnarowicz’s response was to fight back, to resist the silencing and shaming he’d suffered from lifelong; and to do it not alone but in the company of others. In the plague years, he became involved with Act Up, a direct action group that fused art and resistance into an astonishingly potent force. There isn’t much to find inspiring about the Aids crisis, except the way that it was combated not by people contracting into couples or family groupings, but by communal direct action.
Wojnarowicz’s work had always been political. Even before Aids, he’d dealt with sexuality and difference: with what it’s like to live in a world that despises you, to be subject every single day to hatred and contempt, enacted not just by individuals but by the supposedly protective structures of society itself. Aids confirmed his suspicions. As he put it in his searing memoir, Close to the Knives: “My rage is really about the fact that when I was told that I’d contracted this virus it didn’t take me long to realise that I’d contracted a diseased society as well.”
Act Up’s work undoubtedly drove improved treatment for people with Aids, but combination therapy came too late for Wojnarowicz. He died in 1992, at the age of 37, leaving behind a body of work of radical honesty. “I want to make somebody feel less alienated – that’s the most meaningful thing to me,” he once said. “We can all affect each other, by being open enough to make each other feel less alienated.”
That statement summed up precisely what his art meant to me. Nothing in my years of loneliness touched me as deeply as Wojnarowicz’s openness: his willingness to admit to failure or grief; to acknowledge desire, anger, pain; to be emotionally alive. His honesty was in itself a cure for loneliness, dissolving the sense of difference that comes when one believes one’s feelings or desires to be uniquely shameful. How had he responded to the sources of isolation in his own life? By speaking the truth, by making art, by building community, by engaging in political action, by refusing to be invisible.
The artists I encountered in the lonely city helped me not just to understand loneliness, but also to see the potential beauty in it, the way it drives creativity of all kinds. These days, I don’t think the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.
There is a gentrification that’s happening to cities, and there’s a gentrification that’s happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. Amid the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings – depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage – are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice or, on the other hand, to the native texture of embodiment, of doing time, as David Wojnarowicz memorably put it, in a rented body, with all the attendant grief and frustration that entails.
So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with being compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up wounds as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness? Why this need constantly to inhabit peak states, or to be comfortably sealed inside a unit of two, turned inward from the world at large?
I have been lonely, and no doubt I will be lonely again. There isn’t any shame in that. Loneliness is a special place, I’m certain of it: adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive.
Leo Tolstoy’s titanic novel War and Peace has received a new adaptation by the BBC and is now airing globally. Directed by British filmmaker Tom Harper, the serialized television production stars American actor Paul Dano and British actors Lily James, James Norton, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea in leading roles as part of a large, predominantly UK cast.
Tolstoy, one of the greatest of the great Russian fiction writers of the 19th century, was born in 1828, three years after the Decembrist Revolt in which a group of officers rose up in one of the first open struggles against tsarism. He died November 20, 1910, five years after the 1905 Revolution in Russia and seven years before the October Revolution. Tolstoy’s other great works includeAnna Karenina (1877) and Resurrection (1899).
His epic War and Peace, first published in its entirety in 1869, is set during the period of the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) and the French invasion of Russia. It follows the members of several Russian aristocratic families as they seek to survive the confusing, frenzied, bloody times.
The eight-hour miniseries opens in 1805 in St. Petersburg, as Napoleon’s victories and his army’s conquest of significant portions of western Europe are having an increasing impact on Russian life. Many of the central characters are introduced at an upper crust social gathering. Among them is Pierre Bezukhov (Dano), awkward but amiable, and initially a supporter of the French leader: “Napoleon’s a great man! He stood above the revolution, he put an end to its abuses and kept all that was good about it! You see good in revolution, sir? The equality of all citizens, freedom of speech, liberty, equality, fraternity, these are ideas we could learn from in Russia.”
Pierre looks on with disgust at the room’s “overfed aristocrats.” The illegitimate son of a wealthy count, he will soon become the object of intrigue for the sinister Prince Vassily Kuragin (Rea), who makes an unsuccessful attempt to suppress the will that names Pierre the inheritor of his father’s vast estate.
Paul Dano and James Norton in War and Peace
Another guest at the party is Pierre’s friend Andrei Bolkonsky (Norton), the intelligent and ambitious son of retired military commander Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky (Broadbent). Also present are the Rostovs, a noble, but down-on-their-luck Moscow family that includes a vivacious daughter Natasha (James), a quiet niece Sonya (Aisling Loftus) and a son Nikolai (Jack Lowden), who has just joined the army commanded by the veteran General Kutuzov (Brian Cox) (“He’s about the only man in Russia who knows what the war’s about and that includes our glorious Emperor.”). Nikolai’s parents (Greta Scacchi and Adrian Edmondson) are depending on their son to reverse the family fortunes.
Russia is in alliance with the Austrian Empire at this point (in the Third Coalition against Napoleon) and a restless, unhappy Andrei (“I can’t bear this life”)––whose young wife is pregnant––and Nikolai set off for the front. Meanwhile, Kuragin maneuvers Pierre into marrying his morally loose but beautiful daughter Helene (Tuppence Middleton). Her incestuous relationship with her dissolute brother Anatole (Callum Turner) is one indication of her manipulative, deceitful character.
Thus the stage is set for the various personal and political stratagems, unions and disunions, as the epoch of war heads toward its denouement following Napoleon’s fateful invasion of Russia in 1812 and the declaration of war by a reluctant Tsar Alexander I (Ben Lloyd-Hughes). On the eve of the invasion, Napoleon (Mathieu Kassovitz) brags that he has 600,000 men while the Russian army has only one-third that number and lies in shambles.
War and Peace has been adapted by Andrew Davies, best known for his reworking for television of such classics as Pride and Prejudice (1995), Vanity Fair (1998) and Sense and Sensibility (2008). He also wrote the popular British political thriller serial House of Cards (1990). His work on the current production results in a credible condensation of Tolstoy’s massive, complex story, some 1,400 pages and more than half a million words long.
Visually graceful and aided by numerous accomplished performances, this large-scale, high-quality production is, on the whole, a gripping experience.
Lily James as Natasha Rostova
The series paints a picture of a Russian aristocracy in which petty and selfish motives predominate. Andrei Bolkonsky goes off to war primarily to escape a vapid, stuffy life. Nikolai Rostov has other motives: his gambling debts have nearly bankrupted his family. He considers it more honorable to turn soldier than remain in the clutches of a nasty, egotistical mother and kindly, but ineffectual, father. In the end, under pressure from his parents, Nikolai breaks his engagement to the impecunious Sonya in favor of a more advantageous liaison.
Andrei Bolkonsky’s sister, the modest Marya (Jessie Buckley), shows her spiteful landlord coloring when she deals with the serfs on the family estate who refuse to help the household escape from the invading French army. Bellows one angry peasant: “The French will set us free and give us land! What have you ever done for us?”
Unfortunately, the production seems to side with Marya and her self-centered concerns. She is soon rescued from the legitimate wrath of the peasants by the timely appearance of Nikolai and his regiment. It is the one major scene that points to the fact that this parasitical social layer lives off the exploitation and enslavement of the peasantry.
Pierre, the moral conscience of War and Peace, tries to be honest when he sadly admits that “my life is one mistake after another … I wanted to change the world for the better, help my fellow men and look at me a fat, drunken aristocrat who makes a bungle out of everything.” To make amends for what he considers his mistakes, Pierre becomes obsessed with assassinating Napoleon.
In a relatively modest way, the mini-series does provide some sense of the great events that shaped the Tolstoy novel—namely, the aftermath of the world-altering French revolution. The depiction of the Battle of Borodino in September 1812, the bloodiest single day of the Napoleonic wars, with some 70,000 Russian and French casualties, is one of the series’ strongest sequences. Here, at least for a moment, the aristocratic lifestyle is left behind and we see something of the horror of war: men cut in half, doctors sawing off legs, the misery of the wounded and dying. And later there are the horrific consequences for Moscow’s population.
Pierre Bezukhov (Dano) as French prisoner
A duality exists in Tolstoy’s work between sharp condemnations of the aristocratic life and his acceptance of the inevitability of that life. In his remarkable 1908 tribute to the novelist, Leon Trotsky observed that, despite everything, Tolstoy continued to place in the center of his artistic attention “the one and the same wealthy and well-born Russian landlord” as though outside this universe “there were nothing of importance or of beauty.”
The mini-series tends to adopt the same standpoint, which is far less defensible given the subsequent course of Russian and world history. Trotsky noted that at the end of the novel, Tolstoy showed Pierre Bezukhov, “the restless seeker of truth,” as “a smug family man,” and “Natasha Rostova, so touching in her semi-childlike sensitivity,” as “a shallow breeding female, untidy diapers in hand.” The present series does the same, only more so. The final scene grates with its complacency and suggestion that contented family life offers some consolation for the massive destruction and loss of life.
That being said, Davies is genuinely skilled at choosing and adapting enduring, classic works. True, his genre of intelligent costume drama is not the be-all and end-all of artistic effort. One might even say that stylish adaptations like War and Peace have a certain soothing effect on an audience (with the exception of the battle scenes). If we were currently flooded with challenging artistic evauations of the status quo, it is unlikely that such series would receive quite the attention they do. However, given the actual state of cultural affairs, this version of the Tolstoy epic attracts attention for its general intelligence and pleasing aesthetic qualities.
Andrei Bolkonsky (Norton) with his unit
To their credit, the makers of the miniseries have tried to capture certain crucial features of the novel. A naturalness and elegance underscore and heighten the emotional intensity. As in Tolstoy’s narrative, there is truthfulness, a lack of pretension and artificiality: the viewer is engaging with real people, who have real, complex lives and feelings.
In dozens of essays the leading Russian Marxists, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky and others, pointed to the great contrast between the immortality of Tolstoy’s artistic achievement and the poverty of his philosophical and social ideas. The novelist was a pacifist, a believer in “non-resistance to evil,” a conservative anarchist, “a moralist and mystic,” in Trotsky’s phrase, and “a foe of politics and revolution.”
Nonetheless, as an indefatigable social critic, an enemy of cruelty and oppression, Tolstoy played an enormous role in undermining the tsarist regime and the entire Russian social order. Reactionary forces in the former Soviet Union have not forgiven him to this day.
In an obituary, Trotsky magnificently paid tribute to the great writer: “Truth in and of itself possesses a terrible, explosive power: once proclaimed, it irresistibly gives rise to revolutionary conclusions in the consciousness of the masses. Everything that Tolstoy stated publicly… seeped into the minds of the laboring masses … And the word became deed. Although not a revolutionary, Tolstoy nurtured the revolutionary element with his words of genius. In the book about the great storm of 1905 an honorable chapter will be dedicated to Tolstoy.”
It would be misleading to suggest that Tolstoy’s fierce indictment of Russia’s institutions is sufficiently present in the War and Peace mini-series. However, its honest presentation inevitably communicates elements of the social critique, and also may lead the viewer to investigate Tolstoy’s work further. That would be all to the good.