Monday, January 27, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
The composers of ancient epics knew that one certain way of grabbing an audience’s interest was to begin in the middle – in medias res – rather than at the beginning of the story. Start off with something dramatic and the audience might be hooked. Brian Wilkins uses this technique with great effect in Among Secret Beauties. This book is, as its subtitle says, A memoir of mountaineering in New Zealand and the Himalayas. Born in 1925, so now 88 years old, Wilkins spent many years as a lecturer in pharmaceutical chemistry, and before that he had spent some time as a high school science teacher. But he always had many interests in his life (or “passions” as he prefers to call them), and one of the most prominent was mountaineering.
Aged 29, Wilkins was part of the climbing expedition in the Himalayas that was organised in 1954, with Edmund Hillary, Charles Evans and George Lowe as leaders. This was the year after Hillary and Tenzing had conquered Everest. Without any exposition, Chapter One of Among Secret Beauties throws us into the most dramatic episode in which Wilkins was involved in the 1954 expedition. He and fellow-climber Jim McFarlane fell down a crevasse as they were following quite a way behind Hillary’s party on a trek to a mountain camp. Wilkins managed to get out. To his amazement he heard the voice of McFarlane, who was badly injured 18 metres below him, apologising for not rescuing them both, even though Wilkins was the one who had tumbled in first. This is a frightening narrative, capped by Wilkins’ account of reaching the camp on his own and getting help from Hillary and a party of sherpas.
Hillary himself almost died as he descended the crevasse to retrieve McFarlane but, says Wilkins, Hillary’s account of what happened was so modest that no reader would have known his life was in danger. It was only later that it became sensational world news. As we are told only much further on in the book, Jim McFarlane, having suffered amputations after his crash into the crevasse, was later carried all the way down the mountains in a modified tea chest strapped to a sherpa’s back
After this opening, all the first half of the book concerns itself with the 1954 expedition, copiously illustrated with excellent colour photographs taken at the time, many by Wilkins himself.
Wilkins is clearly proud of his part in the expedition and proud of his connection with Hillary. Hillary sent off dispatches to The Times of London, which had contributed to financing the expedition. Wilkins watched him writing part of his account of the Everest expedition during the rest days of the 1954 expedition. Wilkins doesn’t stint his praise for some other members of the party and for the sherpas.
But his account is not always uncritical. He goes into the planning of the expedition, with its genesis in the New Zealand Alpine Club and the initial fear Hillary might not join them. He shows awareness of some tensions between New Zealand-based and British-based organizing committees. He notes:
“Anyone who has lived in London for a few years can be forgiven for believing that they are at the centre of the world, and any climber celebrating the achievement of John Hunt’s expedition could be forgiven for claiming it as the centre of the universe. The correspondence became occasionally rather testy.” (p.35)
He remarks sharply on how much those who receive the acclaim are only part of any climbing expedition. The imagery he uses is entirely appropriate to the 1950s. Chapter 4 opens thus:
“The rocket that propelled Sputnik 1, the first satellite, into orbit weighed nearly 300 tons and the Sputnik a mere 80 kilograms. What better image for a Himalayan expedition, another huge construction, delivering perhaps two climbers only to be the first to stand on the summit and to move into an orbit of acclamation? The others who helped to get them there, most of whom would have had summit ambitions themselves, were discarded like booster rockets, leaving only their hacking breath drifting away into space like spent rocket fuel.” (p.43)
When he mentions the French team which, the following year, conquered the summits that the 1954 team had failed to conquer, he describes them wistfully as “a triumph of careful planning and concentrated effort from a harmonious party” (p.104), clearly implying that some of these qualities were not present in their own expedition. Indeed he goes on to criticise forthrightly the poor planning of the 1954 expedition and the way it has subsequently been misrepresented as a geological surveying exercise with a little climbing thrown in, rather than as the climbing-focussed expedition which everybody understood it to be at the time.
The blurb on the back of the book says: “In this frank account [Wilkins]… submits the writings of his contemporaries to robust critical attention.”
Chapter 6 is potentially the most controversial in the book. Wilkins records how, with the accident involving Hillary and with Hillary also falling sick, the attempt on a major peak had to be abandoned as effort went into rescuing Hillary by taking him down on a stretcher to lower altitudes. He questions Hillary’s leadership in the decisions that were made, noting that Hillary had never led a Himalaya expedition before, and raising the possibility that Hillary was already weakened by a never-diagnosed illness even before the 1954 expedition even began. Hence Hillary was never again able to summit in the Himalayas. Wilkins’ real “villain” however is the later-knighted Charles Evans, the peremptory ex-army officer who took over after Hillary fell ill, and whom Wilkins sees as having falsified a report about Wilkins in order to justify terminating the expedition. Much later in the book (pp.188-189) Wilkins takes a crack at another historian of New Zealand mountaineering who misrepresented one of Wilkins’ climbs.
If you are absorbed in Wilkins’ well-told story, you might be tempted to skip the endnotes, but they are very worth reading. It is here that Wilkins dissents from some other peoples’ version of mountain expeditions in which he was involved. His dissent includes his story of how other mountaineer-writers misassigned to themselves his photographs of a fellow-climber on a perilous slope.
Only after all of the 1954 matter is accounted for does Wilkins go back to the formative autobiographical material, telling us of his Catholic childhood in Mosgiel and giving a generally positive account of schooling with the Christian Brothers and intellectual formation from the likes of the adventurous Jesuit priest who visited when he was a chaplain with American forces during the war. (Incidentally, the title “Among Secret Beauties” is a quotation from a pope’s account of the attractions of mountaineering.) Wilkins tells us of his other major passion outside mountaineering, singing art songs as a baritone. He is as enthusiastic about this as he is about climbing, and he describes one singing engagement under Maxwell Fernie as “a weekly liturgical space flight powered by Palestrina, Vittoria and other geniuses of polyphony.” (pp.126-127)
Then it is on to his climbing career in the Southern Alps, both before and after the 1954 Himalayas expedition. The anecdotes are vivid, such as the one about surviving a snowstorm by sheltering with friends in an ice-cave, but having to carry out one team member who proved to be diabetic (p.144); or, more hauntingly, worrying about whether his own cheerful published account of descending on one route down Mt Cook didn’t encourage the climber H.R. (Harry) Scott to try the same route some years later – and plunge to his death (p.154). The party with whom he ascended Mount Aspiring hid in an ice cave during an electric storm and found themselves shoving all the metal objects they had outside the entrance to the cave, as they did not wish to be electrocuted when the lightning kept getting attracted to them.
There are a number of mountaineering deaths recorded in this book, and in his final reflections Wilkins tells how he gave up mountaineering as he gradually came to see it was important not to leave his wife a widow. Even so, his interest continued, and one of the book’s last photographs shows him, in his late 70s, standing on the East Peak of Mt Earnslaw.
This is a good, very readable account of the life of a very active man, generous in his praises but also eager to correct what he sees as misrepresentations of events he witnessed. Its observations give it an edge over other books of physical endeavour.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
This week PROFESSOR MARK WILLIAMS of Victoria University of Wellington has genberously agreed to share his views on a collection of poetry he admires.
“LAST POEMS” by D.H.Lawrence (first published posthumously in 1932) REVIEWED by PROFESSOR MARK WILLIAMS
Recently I attended a lecture on D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover delivered to a second-year English class at Victoria University. The class was clearly engaged by the book and its controversies, eagerly responding to the lecturer, Timothy Jones’s carefully balanced judgments on its literary value, the historical contexts of its reception, and those endearing and infuriating habits of its author of butting into the narrative with his grand thoughts about sexuality, love and gender.
I was pleased that the fierce polemics surrounding such issues in the 1970s when I was an undergraduate encountering Lawrence at university had abated. At last one could discuss Lawrence as a writer rather than being consumed by arguments about his canonical status, his politics or his thought. But I wondered how these seemingly post-political students would respond to the Lawrence of the 1970s. Their Lawrence is an odd figure from the early twentieth century who made it possible to talk directly about sexuality in fiction rather than the revolutionary practitioner of the novel as ‘the one bright book of life’.
Something had been lost. As a schoolboy in the 1960s I recall the thrill of reading a forbidden author (as well as the disappointing lack of pornographic frisson afforded by Sons and Lovers or even Women in Love borrowed from the local library). A few years later he was the subject of exhilarating ‘close readings’ by, I think, Peter Dane in an undergraduate English course I took at Auckland University. By this time, though, Lawrence was already caught up in the ferocious ideological arguments about ‘sexual politics’ that would inflame the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Lawrence would become increasingly marginal and contested in English departments.
Perhaps as an antidote to those Lawrentian qualities, I’ve always preferred him on a small rather than an epic scale. I would rather reread the stories in The Prussian Officer collection than the big novels in response to the Great War, for all their splendid parts. I love the poems on animals, flowers, fruits and places. And I return every so often to the last poems he wrote, dying while vividly defending those fundamental values that shape his work—poems in which the divine is not separate from the world but present in the flesh, as the highest expression of our consciousness of life. Here I find him still full of live controversy, more so than his great modernist explorations of love and the condition of civilization.
How do we approach Lawrence after a century in which his writing has helped to liberate old repressions? The trouble is that the battle is over and, like all old revolutionaries, he sounds dated, even corny when he uses ecstatic language to describe sexual relations between men and women. His daring confrontations with sexual emotion, awkwardness, beauty and transport have been taken over and debased in the language of popular romance (and, more recently, mummy porn). Moreover, contemporary readers of Lawrence are inevitably made uncomfortable by his palpable excitement about sexuality. We find his unashamed celebration of the phallus embarrassing (there’s even a whale’s phallus ‘linking the wonder of whales’ in the odd ‘Whales Weep Not’ in Last Poems).
The problem is that, like all religious writers, Lawrence is continually gesturing beyond the capacity of language to convey the kinds of intense experience he is interested in. Linda Williams asks why Lawrence in describing the sexual act and the moment of orgasm employs prose which seems to strain beyond the limits of language to convey thought: ‘What then is Lawrence striving to “go beyond” in all this overwhelming passing away, fainting, flooding, darkness and deepness’. Certainly, one feels that Lawrence is so determined to express the life of the body, not the mind thinking about the body, that he tries to carry his reader beyond normal speech, social codes and conventions. It all sounds a bit strained.
Last Poems are full of death rather than sexuality or nature. And they are full of God being hammered into a human form. When Hamm in Samuel Backett’s Endgame exclaims, ‘God, the bastard, he doesn’t exist’ he both denies the existence of God and affirms it by cursing that absence. His blasphemy paying a kind of respect to the deity in that it implies a power in the weighty presence of His lingering in imagination and in desire. Lawrence’s late poems address the question of God’s absence, turning it into a positive by finding new channels for the sense of exultation that religion focused on the transcendent.
The religious instinct, according to Lawrence throughout his writing life, must inform life, not draw the self away towards the transcendent. He wants to take all the old fervour and reverence of religion and direct it not at God as an abstraction but at the human situation encountering the wonder of things as they are. His own mortality makes these late poems especially powerful, even when they seem to have some of that familiar Lawrentian habit of preaching at us. Consider the group of poems, ‘The Body of God’, ‘The Demiurge’, ‘Red Geraniums and Godly Mignonette’ where Lawrence attacks Plato’s ‘great lie of ideals’
In ‘Demiurge’ Lawrence considers the Platonic notion that ‘reality exists only in the spirit’, crying out indignantly: ‘as if any mind could have imagined a lobster/dozing in the under-deeps’. God can only imagine those things which have come into being, he says. Jesus was only himself when he had become a man ‘with a body and with needs, and a lovely spirit’. God, then, is not prior to the world, an idea of which things are symbols or echoes. God is the world of sentient things, evolving, changing, grasped in moments of intense recognition, what Lawrence calls ‘acts of attention’.
One could summarise the list of positions struck in Last Poems: the denial of the Platonic belief that ideas come before things; the refusal of the metaphysical bias in Western thought and the longing for permanence; and so on. Yet reading these poems one does not—leaving aside such tired polemic as that against contemporary civilisation in ‘In the Cities’—experience the ideas as abstractions or preachiness. Lawrence curbs his urge to teach. In ‘Red Geraniums and Godly Mignonette’, for example, he uses humour rather than railing at us: ‘You can’t imagine the Holy Ghost sniffing at cherry pie heliotrope/Or the Most High, during the coal age, cudgelling his mighty brains’ to think into being things as precise as flowers or lizards.
The matter-of-fact colloquial language in which Christianity and spirituality are addressed here is almost like that of Jacques Prévert’s version of the Lord’s Prayer—‘Our father who art in heaven. Stay there’—still accessible and effective as satire. Indeed, in the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ Lawrence also turns a cheeky irreverence at the Deity. At the same time, the language of the poems ripples with Biblical echoes. Lawrence was raised with the language of the Bible, steeped in the Apocalypse and resurrection. As a young man Lawrence rejected Christianity violently because of its stress on weakness and the blood-soaked language of salvation. But he retains and puts to his own purposes the Biblical language of wonder, symbol, and the willingness to address ultimate questions of meaning.
The luminous ‘Bavarian Gentians’ with its flowers, colours, myths, darkness and the sense of moving towards imminent death reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’ poems, especially ‘Tulips’. But Lawrence, accepting death, is not agonisingly in love with it. He seeks to heighten and intensify the moments in which consciousness apprehends being even as his hold on being lapses. In ‘The Ship of Death’ he advises us both to ‘live in peace on the face and earth’ and to prepare for death:
When the day comes, that will come.
Oh think of it in the twilight peacefully!
The last day, and the setting forth
On the longest journey, over the hidden sea
To the last wonder of oblivion.
Lawrence has come back in critical interest over the last decade or so, including among feminist critics like Linda Williams, who responds to the contradictions his works contain that ‘undermine their apparently definitive polemic’. In other words, the fiction itself is much less dogmatic than the man. This is why Lawrence, for all his blustering and preaching, remains important. He tackles fundamental problems of being, meaning and the self, and he does so in such an uncompromising fashion that he continually generates complexities and contradictions. It is these that make us return to him, not for the explicit message about Life or instinct or nerve-brain consciousness but for the sense of an individual attending closely to matters that will never be resolved but which must be continually confronted with fierceness, delicacy and utter openness.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY
I have given a lot of thought recently to the two terms “religion” and “spirituality” and how they are understood. I would say that “religion” and “spirituality” are related concepts, but they are not the same concept.
Both terms feature now in much sceptical and post-Christian polemic, often with the understanding that “religion” refers to something inherited and corporate - belief systems and forms of worship, the churches and their liturgical practices; while “spirituality” refers to something personal, creative, individual and not organised communally. It was with these understandings that, at a history conference in Ireland some years ago, I heard a young Australian lecturer declare fervently, “We don’t need religion. We need spirituality!”
I am aware that these understandings of the two terms are not the only ones. For example, I have read older books, which refer to the “spirituality” of this Christian saint or that Jewish scholar in the sense of how that person said prayers or conducted devotions or organised reflections and intellectual life in relation to a God who was believed in and who was seen as objective to the believer. In this context, “spirituality” is a subset of “religion” and more-or-less refers to religious “style”.
When, like a 5th Form debater, I go to the OED, I don’t find too much help but I am pointed in a significant direction. “Religion” derives from the Latin “religio”, meaning obligation, bond, or reverence – in other words, religion refers to looking beyond oneself somehow, feeling dependent upon something greater than oneself, and developing a moral sense because of this. The OED then rather unhelpfully gives its primary definition of “spirituality” as “spiritual quality”, but the problem here is that we then have to ask what we mean by “spiritual”. Does it mean relating to what is non-material, ideal or transcendent? Or does it mean constructing a sense of selfhood and personal identity out of memory, emotions, the senses and those things that seem personally significant to us?
I suspect it is largely in the latter sense that the term “spirituality” is now commonly understood, and here I have a number of problems.
If “spirituality” is a sense of significance based upon the self, then it is a closed circuit. It is the solipsism that refers to nothing but the self. While “religion” is other-centred, pointing beyond the self, then “spirituality” is, in the real sense of the term, self-centred and self-validating. It could be argued that many of those who identify with “spirituality” do look beyond themselves and feel dependent upon something greater than themselves. The thing they look to and depend upon is physical nature. This is where the sense of awe at the wonders of nature – felt as much by an atheist as by a religious believer – is often cited. But, unless we anthropomorphise nature and give it ethical qualities, nature in itself does not provide us with a moral basis for our lives. Matters are not helped by saying that nature itself is God, for in the end pantheism is a playing with words that leaves us with nothing but raw, non-ethical nature. If everything is God then nothing is God.
“Religion” can be caricatured as blindly following rules or set forms (ignoring the immense individuality, and indeed creativity, with which individual religious believers respond to creeds and formulae of belief). But I believe that the caricature of “spirituality” bears more weight – it means “whatever turns you on” or whatever feeds the senses and ego. (Reductio ad absurdum – some years back I recall a travel advertisement on television promising tourists “unique spiritual experiences” in Bali – meaning, presumably, lovely beaches and nice performances by Balinese dancers.)
Given all this, I would find it hard to refer to, for example, Percy Bysshe Shelley or D.H.Lawrence as “religious” writers as I have defined the term here. “Spiritual”, perhaps, but not “religious”, for the only ethic they follow is the ego. And with the self as the centre of the universe, other people become less important than oneself. It makes no difference that Lawrence spoke of the “gods” in himself communing with the “gods” in other people, for it is still the ego that is being divinised.
I hear Shelley in Epipsychidion describing two women as “Twin spheres of light who rule this passive Earth / This world of love, this me.” And I hear the voice of (current-sense) “spirituality”, wherein other people exist to feed my senses and ego.
Or I turn to the passage in Sons and Lovers (Chapter 13) wherein Paul Morel is reflecting after his first bout of love-making with one of his mistresses, and I find this:
“In the morning he had considerable peace, and was happy in himself. It seemed almost as if he had known the baptism of fire in passion, and it left him at rest. But it was not Clara. It was something that happened because of her, but it was not her. They were scarcely any nearer each other. It was as if they had been blind agents of a great force.” (Sons and Lovers, Chapter 13)
A “great force” is mentioned, yet Paul is not fired by love, or passion, for Clara but “something that happened because of her… not her. ” The living woman, objective to Paul’s ego, dissolves into his ego. She is there to feed him and his senses and provide him with a formative experience. Her only importance is that she has made him “happy in himself”. This note is sounded repeatedly in Lawrence’s writings, longer fiction, shorter fiction and poetry. I am the centre of the universe. I have rejected transcendence and rationalism/ idealism and I have only my senses and my emotions to guide me. I am therefore the only validation of anything. Apart from external constraints over which I have little control (such as the law), my obligations to others depend, in effect, only upon how I am feeling.
I could digress at this point on the whole tension in western culture between Platonic transcendence / idealism / rationalism and Aristotelian empiricism, but I will shorthand such a digression by saying that the only satisfactory approach seems to me to be a synthesis, even if not necessarily the Kantian one of categorical imperatives. To dismiss idealism and transcendence brusquely, and claim that all that exists is what is physically apprehensible, is to cut off half of what human beings are, including reverence, the ability to categorise, the ability to construct moral codes, and reason itself. (And what is any literary criticism except a form of rationalism?)
In a famous phrase in his Pensees, Pascal said “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any living thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus”. In its complete form, this is a specifically Christian confession of faith. But, shorn of the last six words, it has often been précised as the “God-shaped hole” in human consciousness. (I have seen the phrase used, ruefully but sincerely, by agnostic and atheist writers such as Eric Hobsbawm).
Claim to reject transcendence, but the “God-shaped hole” remains, nagging and expecting a response even in the non-religious. So out comes “religious” imagery in agnostic and non-religious writers (especially poets). Once, perhaps too hastily, I ascribed the use of religious imagery by non-religious writers to their envy of religious forms and formulations. It may not be very helpful to ascribe such base motives to other people’s literary practice (it comes perilously close to the way atheist polemicists routinely ascribe hypocrisy or smugness to religious believers). But I still believe envy of the system which produces such imagery is at least part of the mix. There is a considerable degree of intellectual inconsistency in the agnostic’s use of religious imagery for emotional effect, given that the religious imagery of itself denies the declared bases of materialist agnosticism.
But, you may reasonably ask, is it any different from the way, for centuries, Christian poets used (Greek and Roman) pagan imagery in their works? I think there is a difference – for even if the Christian and the pagan classical terms were different, they both pointed to a transcendent and non-material reality. And there was the further assumption that the pagans were right, but not right enough. (It is Vergil who guides Dante through the Inferno, remember.)
I have seen no literary criticism that has persuaded me it is any otherwise.
Crude summary of all of the above: As a religious believer, I feel more kinship with the honest atheist, who is prepared to live with the intellectual consequences of his/her world view, than with the “spiritual” agnostic, who comforts him/herself with unbelieved-in formulations and images.
Monday, January 20, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“IMAGES OF WAR– New Zealand and the First World War in Photographs” by Glyn Harper and the National Army Museum (2013 edition of book first published in 2008) (Harper Collins $NZ100)
Late in 2014 we will be commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Expect an avalanche of new books on the topic. In fact, expect the avalanche to grow heavier over the next four years, as writers and publishers find new ways of capitalising on salient events in the war.
I’ve decided to begin this year by commemorating the century-old war in a rather odd way. Five years ago, in 2008, military historian Glyn Harper and a research team from the National Army Museum in Waiouru, put together Images of War, a book of photographs of New Zealanders in the First World War. The book has now been revised for a new hard-back edition of coffee-table size, bulky enough for me to have to prop it up with other books on my desk as I spent some hours poring over it.
As the preliminary matter tells us, the volume’s 700-odd photographs were chosen from over 20,000 in the military museum’s collection. Harper summarises judiciously the physical difficulties of taking photographs of war in the early 20th century – not only the bulkiness of photographic equipment, which made genuine “action” shots virtually impossible, but also the military censorship which frowned on servicemen taking their own unauthorised shots in areas of operations. Yet – to the delight of historians – many servicemen disobeyed orders and took photographs anyway. Harper explains that in making his selection, he avoided images that were too obviously posed, or created for propaganda purposes, and too many formal shots of staff. The images are grouped together according to campaigns and areas of operations in which New Zealanders were involved – training in New Zealand; Egypt and Gallipoli; the Western Front; Sinai-Palestine etc. Harper precedes each section with a brief summary of how the war affected New Zealanders serving there.
Harper’s introduction reminds us of the importance of the First World War in New Zealand history. A staggering 100,000 New Zealanders served overseas, being 10% of the total population, which was then little over one million. This was greater than New Zealand’s manpower contribution to the Second World War. Elsewhere, he forthrightly explains what a foolish campaign the Gallipoli one was; and reminds us that the real killing field was the Western Front, where over 84% of New Zealand’s casualties were sustained.
His introduction does not mince words when it declares that “an aggressive militaristic Imperial Germany was determined to impose its form of culture on the world at the point of a bayonet.” All historians would agree that every country involved in the war had its own ambitions, agenda and guilt; but this fact has led some to underplay Germany’s distinctive aggression. So much so that three years ago Stevan Eldred-Grigg produced a singularly silly book The Great Wrong War which would have us believe that Germany was simply a progressive “federal state” (Eldred-Grigg carefully avoided using the term Empire) grievously wronged by its aggressive neighbours. Frankly, this was over-compensation pushed to the point of absurdity. Harper’s statement may be a little un-nuanced, but it is nearer the historical truth.
Now how do I analyse a book whose main impact comes through its photographs? I have to point out at once that many of the images are blurred, faded, indistinct or grainy. They are not dramatically framed works of art. They are historical documents and (although some are visually striking), they have to be read that way.
I found myself considering how easy it would be to be fooled by some of these truthful images.
Take the image on Page 31, which shows a long line of New Zealand soldiers and their horses trekking down a dry, zig-zagging road on an arid hillside. At first glance, I thought it was a photo from the Gallipoli campaign. In fact, it is a shot taken in 1914 on the Port Hills outside Christchurch, during training exercises.
Or take the shot on page 76, which genuinely was taken during the Gallipoli campaign. A thick pall of smoke rises over a gully, looking like the Inferno. Is this the result of a heavy artillery bombardment? No. It is, as the caption explains, smoke created when ANZAC troops were “cremating” the unburied corpses of the enemy dead. (Meaning, in all probability, pouring petrol on them and burning them in the open air to kill the smell and discourage the plagues of flies that unburied corpses bring.)
There are other unusual and generally forgotten things that servicemen are glimpsed doing in this collection. Of course the images of the Western Front include smashed-up villages, mashed-up earth, water-filled shell-craters and the leafless remains of trees. But how often do we think of medicos (like the one seen on Page 117), retrieving the identification discs from corpses? And in another campaign (the Sinai-Palestine one), how often do we remember that the heliograph was still considered a reasonable means of communication – like the one a soldier is using on Page 232? Then there’s the Kiwi soldier on Page 132, standing guard over captured German machine-guns, to prevent them being “souvenired” or looted by other soldiers. All the captured weaponry has been painted with the identification “3rd BTN. NZRB”. On Page 305, a soldier in the Veterinary Corps tries to calm down an agitated horse by stroking its nose. On the same page, there’s an image of two digs, one with his shirt off, hunting for lice to crush between their fingernails.
Some photographs show us that, at least for the camera, soldiers sometimes made light of war. There are a number of images where the troops have written jocular or boastful things over their dugouts. On Page 355 one Kiwi poses, nonchalantly and arms akimbo, behind an unexploded shell that’s almost as tall as he is.
More often, however, reality bites, be it in the images of soldiers marching and waiting; or in the images of fear and pain. Harper has noted how rare genuine actions shots of the battlefield are. But the image of the soldier on Page 66, readying a trench mortar for firing, shows his real strain. The smiles in some shots are clearly forced by tired or battle-fatigued men. Fittingly, the collection ends with images made by plastic surgeons are they documented the ripped flesh of men whose bodies they had to rebuild.
Not only the serving troops learned lessons in the reality of war. Early in the book there are those famous photographs of Prime Minister Bill Massey and Sir Joseph Ward, on the steps of parliament, being acclaimed by a large crowd when New Zealand declared war. It was almost fun and games at that stage. As photographs show, much later in the war the two of them (now coalition partners) visited the troops in France. Again, there was fun and games (the oft-reproduced photograph of the two of them fooling with a machine gun). But their visit to the wounded in July 1918 (photo on Page 207) shows their real concern. And by that stage neither of them found the war a matter for jokes in music halls to mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“STORM OF STEEL” by Ernst Junger (“In Stahlgewittern” first published in German 1920; revised by the author many times; first English translation by Basil Creighton, 1929); “ON THE MARBLE CLIFFS” by Ernst Junger (“Auf den Marmorklippen” first published in German 1939; English translation by Stuart Hood, 1947)
I think it is important to take up and read, as often as we can, books written by people we know to have temperaments and values quite different from our own. If we read only things that are immediately congenial to us, how would we ever expand our minds or learn what writing is capable of expressing?
I begin in this way because I know I have virtually nothing in common with Ernst Junger in terms of beliefs. I am a completely unmilitary person (despite having two brothers who chose to join the armed forces). Ernst Junger was almost the template of the happy warrior – a man who positively enjoyed being a wartime soldier and prided himself on his martial skills. I am of the generations who regard enthusiastic nationalism and patriotism with some suspicion. Ernst Junger belonged to the generations who saw patriotism and love of country (in his case, Germany) as the highest possible virtues. Yet Ernst Junger had one great virtue that anybody should celebrate. He could write, and sometimes write extremely well.
Some facts about the man first of all. Born in March 1895, Junger died in February 1998, one month before his 103rd birthday. He ran away from home at the age of 18 and joined the French Foreign Legion. He volunteered for the German army almost as soon as the First World War broke out, when he was 19, and basically served the whole four years of that war as a front-line soldier on the Western Front, sometimes in sectors where his regiment faced French troops and sometimes where they faced British troops. By the end of the war he had been wounded and concussed and physically damaged many times, but he had survived, he revelled in being a professional soldier, and he had been awarded both the Iron Cross, First Class and the more prestigious Pour le Merite. He finished the war, aged 23, as a lieutenant in charge of storm troops. This term now has to be explained. When we hear of ‘stormtroopers’ we are likely to think of brown-shirted Nazi thugs. Storm troops were those heavily armed German infantrymen who, in the last stages of the First World War, were specially trained to lead surprise attacks on enemy positions in the hope of pushing the enemy back by sheer audacity. This was especially true in the last German offensive in mid-1918.
In the early 1920s, when he was still in his twenties, Junger wrote two autobiographical books based on his wartime experiences, the more famous Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern) and the less-known Copse 125 (Das Waldchen 125). Junger lived on through the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era, having an ambiguous relationship with the Nazis (of which more later). In the Second World War he served in the Wehrmacht, mainly doing office duties in occupied Paris. He wrote many books in the half century after the Second World War and ended up as a revered European intellectual. And yet, for very good reasons, there were always some question marks hanging over him.
Storm of Steel was first published in 1920, but was extensively re-written by Junger in 1924, and indeed was worked over again two or three times by Junger in later decades. I know it has appeared in various English translations, including a Penguin Classics one I have not read. The translation I have read, by Basil Creighton, appeared in 1929, and follows Junger’s 1924 text. It is subtitled “From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front” and identifies Junger on the title page as “Lieutenant, 73rd Hanoverian Fusilier Regiment”. It is a very battered first edition of this 1929 translation that sits on my shelf, and from which I take all my page references.
Storm of Steel both opens and closes on the battlefield. Junger gives us nothing of his earlier life or enlistment etc. With the occasional heavy-handed philosophical interlude, this book is very much a worked-up diary. It takes us through Junger’s earlier experiences on a relatively quiet sector opposing the French in 1915; what he did before and during the Battles of the Somme in 1916 and Ypres and Cambrai in 1917; and the final big German Spring Offensive (Kaiserschlacht) in 1918. On the last pages, as German troops around him are surrendering towards the end of 1918, Junger still wants to fight on.
For sheer horror, some of the things he narrates stick in the mind. There is, for example, the early episode where he casts away his gasmask during a gas attack because its windows keep fogging up and he can’t see where he is running. He believes that he can run through the gas cloud swiftly enough not to be affected. He survives, but his lungs ache.
It takes Junger some time to get used to the sheer ferocity of the war. Here, for example, is his first reaction to coming across enemy dead:
“My attention was caught by a sickly smell and a bundle hanging on a wire. Jumping out of a trench in the early morning mist, I found myself in front of a huddled up corpse, a Frenchman. The putrid flesh, like the flesh of fishes, gleamed greenish-white through the rents in the uniform. I turned away and then started back in horror: close to me a figure cowered behind a tree. It wore the shining straps and belt of the French, and high upon its back there was still the loaded pack, crowned with a round cooking utensil. Empty eye-sockets and the few wisps of hair on the black and withered skull told me that this was no living man. Another sat with the upper part of the body clapped down over the legs as thought broken through the middle. All round lay dozens of corpses, putrefied, calcined, mummified, fixed in a ghastly dance of death. The French must have carried on for months without burying their fallen comrades.” (pp. 21-22)
Later in the war, however, he is virtually inured to its horrors and is enthusiastic in planned slaughter. Take, for example, this passage of furor milensius during the Battle of Cambrai:
“Then came the climax. The enemy hard pressed, and with us always on his heels, made ready to retire to a communication trench that turned away to the right. I jumped on to a fire-step and saw that this trench for a good stretch ran parallel to ours at a distance of only twenty metres. So the enemy had to pass by us once more. We could look right down on the helmets of the English, who stumbled over each other in their haste and excitement. They started back and crowded on those behind. Now began an indescribable carnage. Bombs flew through the air like snowballs till the whole scene was veiled in white smoke. Two men handed me bombs to throw without a moment’s pause. Bomb flashed and exploded among the mob of English, throwing them aloft in fragments with their helmets. Cries or rage and terror were mingled. With the fire in our eyes we sprang with a shout over the top.” (pp. 233-234)
There is a similar instance during the Spring Offensive of 1918:
“The turmoil of our feelings was called forth by rage, alcohol and the thirst for blood as we stepped out, heavily and yet irresistibly, for the enemy’s lines. And therewith beat the pulse of heroism – the godlike and the bestial inextricably mingled. I was far in front of the company, followed by my batman and a man of one year’s service called Haake. In my right hand I gripped my revolver, in my left a bamboo riding-cane. I was boiling with a fury now utterly inconceivable to me. The overpowering desire to kill winged my feet. Rage squeezed bitter tears from my eyes.” (p.255)
In this latter example, Junger at least shows his awareness that the ferocity and “heroism” of battle involved the “bestial”, that alcohol and sheer rage played their part, and that the fury he felt was “inconceivable” to him on later reflection. In other words, there is a rational man inside the enthusiastic warrior.
Towards the end of the war, after seeing another battlefield atrocity, he remarks:
“I felt the look of horror in the eyes of a new recruit, a seminarist, who was gazing at me. Looking along the channel of his thoughts I had a shock when I realized for the first time how callous the war had made me. One got to regarding men as mere matter.” (p.294)
He knows his experience has to some extent brutalised him.
The landscape that Junger describes is the grassless, treeless one of craters and mud and unburied corpses that we are used to from so many photographs of the conflict:
“Once seen, the landscape is an unforgettable one. In this neighbourhood of villages, meadows and woods and fields, there was literally not a bush or even the tiniest blade of grass to be seen. Every hand’s-breadth of ground had been churned up again and again; trees had been uprooted, smashed and ground to touchwood, the houses blown to bits and turned to dust; hills had been levelled and the arable land made a desert.” (p. 108)
Or again in Flanders:
“The vast field of shell-holes had been turned into a sea of mud by the heavy rain of the last days. Its depths were particularly dangerous in the low-lying ground of the Paddebeek. On my zigzag course I passed many a lonely and forgotten corpse. Often only a head or a hand projected from the shell-hole whose circle of dirty water reflected them. Thousands sleep like that, without one token of love to mark the unknown grave.” (p.210)
When he gives his versions of what is humorous on the battlefront, Junger can make us particularly uneasy. Is the following particularly funny? Is it really “savage humour”? Personally, I would hate to be the stammerer, or face the drunkard who had a rifle:
“During this time a fairly lively activity prevailed in front of the wire, and sometimes it was not without a certain savage humour. One of our fellows on patrol was shot at because he stammered and could not get out the password quick enough. Another time one of the men, returning at midnight, after a festive evening at the kitchen at Monchy, climbed over the entanglement and opened fire on his own trench. When his ammunition was exhausted he was hauled in and soundly thrashed.” (p.63)
It is even more difficult to see the humour in what Junger calls “irresistibly comic”:
“On the 15th and 17th we had two more gas attacks to go through. On the 17th we were relieved and were twice shelled in Douchy – once while Major von Jarotzky was addressing the assembled officers in an orchard. It was irresistibly comic, in spite of the danger, to see how the company flew apart, nearly falling on their noses in their extreme haste to get through the fences and vanish like lightning wherever cover was to be found. In the garden of my billet a little girl of eight years old was killed by a shell while rummaging for rubbish in a pit.” (pp.87-88)
I know that laughter is something which helps soldiers survive, but the mention of a killed child at the end of this seems particularly gross.
When he deals with the enemy, Junger does remark a number of times that aluminium-headed British bullets are really the same as the outlawed dum-dums and he does criticise French plumbing, but he has the admirable quality of never ridiculing the enemy, even if in the following passage he seem to take no account of the fact that the war was being fought over occupied French territory:
“It has always been my ideal in war to eliminate all feelings of hatred and to treat my enemy as an enemy only in battle and to honour him as a man according to his courage. It is exactly in this that I have found many kindred souls among British officers. It depends, of course, on not letting oneself be blinded by an excessive national feeling, as the case generally is between the French and the Germans. The consciousness of the importance of one’s own nation ought to reside as a matter of course and unobtrusively in everybody, just as an unconditional sense of honour does in a gentleman. Without this it is impossible to give others their due.” (p.52)
The enemy are simply fellow warriors who take the same risks and wreak the same destructiveness as the author praises in his German comrades. This “sporting” attitude does mean that Junger often approaches warfare like a schoolboy playing a particularly exciting game. The attitude to soldiers’ leisure and to sex in the following is also interesting:
“In this little retreat the bottle went round faster than ever. At night when walking late through the narrow streets, one heard the sounds of carnival in every billet. Everything in wartime goes without reckoning, and hence came the preference of the soldier at the front for alcohol in its most concentrated forms. Our relations with the civil population, too, were, to a great extent, of an undesirable familiarity; Venus deprived Mars of many servants.” (p.119)
I am not sure here is “Venus deprived Mars of many servants” doesn’t refer to soldiers crippled by STDs.
In terms of Junger’s moral perspective, two passages in Storm of Steel gave me particular pause. Here is the first, concerning the German army’s deliberate destruction of civilian property in their retreat to the Somme, late 1916, early 1917:
“Every village up to the Siegfried line was a rubbish-heap. Every tree felled, every road mined, every well fouled, every water-course dammed, every cellar blown up or made into a death-trap with concealed bombs, all supplies or metal sent back, all nails ripped up, all telephone wire rolled up, everything burnable burned. In short the country over which the enemy were to advance had been turned into an utter desolation.
The moral justification of this has been much discussed. However, it seems to me that the gratified approval of armchair warriors and journalists is incomprehensible. When thousands of peaceful persons are robbed of their homes, the self-satisfaction of power may at least keep silence.
As for the necessity, I have of course, as a Prussian officer, no doubt whatever. War means the destruction of the enemy without scruple and by any means. War is the harshest of all trades, and the masters of it can only entertain humane feelings so long as they do no harm. It makes no difference that these operation which the situation demanded were not very pretty.” (pp.126-127)
Note the dire ambiguity here. On the one hand, Junger says he questions the “moral justification” of what the army did. Yet he goes on to argue military “necessity” as overriding moral considerations. It is as if he wants to separate himself from crude and vulgar judgments while at the same time endorsing them.
Later, there is a similar, and even more shocking, moral ambiguity when he speaks about shooting surrendering English soldiers during the 1918 Spring Offensive:
“No quarter was given. The English hastened with upstretched arms through the first wave of storm troops to the rear, where the fury of the battle had not reached boiling point. An orderly… shot a good dozen of them or more with his 32 repeater.
I cannot blame our men for their bloodthirsty conduct. To kill a defenceless man is a baseness. Nothing in the war was more repulsive to me than those heroes of the mess tables who used to repeat with a fat laugh the familiar tale of the prisoners marched in: ‘Did you hear about the massacre? Priceless!’
On the other hand, the defending force, after driving their bullets into the attacking one at five paces’ distance, must take the consequences. A man cannot change his feelings again during the last rush with a veil of blood before his eyes. He does not want to take prisoners but to kill. He has no scruples left; only the spell of primeval instinct remains. It is not till blood has flowed that the mist gives way in his soul. He looks round him as though walking from the bondage of a dream. It is only then that he becomes once more a soldier of today and capable of addressing himself to the next problem of tactics.” (pp.262-263)
Note that it is at once a “baseness” to shoot unarmed and surrendering men, and yet justified it in terms of how fully worked-up for slaughter men in battle are.
In the end, Junger, the sensitive and very intelligent observer, allows his ideal of military professionalism to take precedence over every other consideration. For ultimately Storm of Steel, the most vivid First World War soldier’s memoir I know, is a book in praise of the character-forming qualities of war. Junger praises men who go down fighting, as in such brief epitaphs (and there are many of them in this book) as:
“Our company commander at that time was Lieutenant R. Brecht, who had hurried across from America at the outbreak of the war, and a better man for the defence of such a position could not be found. His fighting spirit was never behindhand, and it brought him at last a glorious death.” (p.37)
In the book’s very last paragraph, then, there is this particular idealisation of the dead and of patriotism:
“We stand in the memory of the dead who are holy to us, and we believe ourselves entrusted with the true and spiritual welfare of our people. We stand for what will be and for what has been. Though force without and barbarity within conglomerate in sombre clouds, yet so long as the blade of the sword will strike a spark in the night may it be said: Germany lives and Germany shall never go under!” (p.319)
Near the very beginning, Junger has given his ideal of what soldiers should be – enthusiastic boys led by professionals:
“The notion that a soldier becomes hardier and bolder as war proceeds is mistaken. What he gains in the science and art of attacking his enemy he loses in strength of nerve. The only dam against this loss is a sense of honour so resolute that few attain to it. For this reason I consider that troops composed of boys of twenty, under experienced leadership, are the most formidable.” (p.4)
In the introduction to the English translation I read (published in 1929, remember) the novelist R.H.Mottram notes that, even at the end of the war, Junger “seems to imagine that a sort of Nietzschean-Wagnerian atmosphere of heroics translated into terms of gas and tanks can be re-created out of the wreckage of empire.” (p.vi)
I remember that when I was a teenager, my professional soldier brother (the late Lieutenant-General Piers Martin Reid) read both Storm of Steel and Copse 125, and when he got to the last paragraph of one or the other of them, he said to me “God, it could almost be an advertisement for the Nazi Party”. In the context of the Germany of the 1920s and the 1930s, Junger’s extreme and heartfelt nationalism and his glorification of the warrior virtues were the very things prized by Germany’s extreme Right including, eventually, the Nazis. And indeed, once they were in power, the Nazis did their best to enrol Junger in their cause. The people who burned copies of Remarque’s anti-war Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) wanted to build up Junger, the exemplary, brave and much-decorated German soldier, as the official anti-Remarque.
And so at last I come to the question marks still hanging over Junger.
Junger never joined the Nazi party. He did some honourable things, such as refusing to allow the Nazi party newspaper to print extracts from his books, and withdrawing his membership from a veterans’ association when it expelled its Jewish members. There seems to be evidence that, when filling a desk job in occupied Paris in the Second World War, he had a distant connection with the bomb plot to kill Hitler. It is sometimes argued that the only reason the Nazis didn’t touch him was that he was such an icon of Germany military fortitude that it would have been embarrassing for them to have done so.
Yet there is still this uncertainty about the man. After all, while he was not anti-Semitic, many of his values were the very ones the Nazis promoted.
Chief article of evidence for the defence in this case is Junger’s novella (little more than 100 pages) Auf den Marmorklippen (On the Marble Cliffs), which was published in Germany in 1939. It is a fantasy story set in a world which has elements of traditional Europe in place names and descriptions, but also purely fantastic elements. Told in the first person, most of the action takes place in a peaceful, bucolic area where the narrator and his immediate family spend most of their time studying plants, talking philosophy and living an almost monastic life. But out of the dark forests comes the “Chief Ranger” who succeeds in stirring up and leading the uncouth mobs who wish to destroy this idyll. So there is war – presented in almost “Lord of the Rings” medieval terms. People are slaughtered, towns are destroyed and ruin is brought to what was once beautiful.
Remember, this novella was published in Nazi Germany, and was not censored. Vigilant members of the regime presumably saw it as mere fantasy. But subsequently, it has often been read as a covert protest against Nazism, and there are indeed some isolated passages that can be read this way. The “Chief Ranger” is the dark, irrational force opposing beauty and scholarly study; the force that can corrupt and lead the masses. We see him as Hitler.
I must admit that, having had On the Marble Cliffs often described to me before I actually read it, I found the reading itself a disappointment. Junger’s style is almost baroque – lots of leisurely and detailed description while very little happens – and the satirical intent (if indeed it is such) is buried in much irrelevant detail. Indeed, for such a short work, it is possible to forget which character is which, they are so badly differentiated. It is certainly not as clear-cut as my little synopsis.
I appreciate that any protest in Nazi Germany was a courageous act, but I note that even after the Nazis were long gone, Junger refused to identify On the Marble Cliffs as a criticism of the regime, and spoke of it in more general terms as a comment on “tyranny”. Its chief impact remains a murky ambiguity.
The “case” of Junger remains unresolved.