Monday, May 30, 2016
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 four or more years ago.
“THE MEANING OF TREASON” by Rebecca West (first published 1947; revised edition 1952; further revision 1956; recast as The New Meaning of Treason 1964)
Here is an interesting question relating to any book that has often been revised and re-edited by the author.
Which version do you regard as the most authentic?
My copy of Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason was printed in 1952, but the book had first been published in 1947 and had been widely reviewed and praised at that time. The 1952 edition added new material and modified somewhat the meaning and impact of the original text – probably to the discomfort of some of the people who originally reviewed and praised the 1947 version.
“Rebecca West” (pen-name of Cicely Isabel Fairfield, 1892-1983) is one of those writers about whom most literate people have heard, but whose work never seems to have become part of the “canon”. Part of the reason for this is certainly political and ideological.
For her day and time, Rebecca West was an ardent feminist. As a young woman, she had a long affair with H.G.Wells, which produced a son, the critic and novelist Anthony West (who ended up hating his mother and wrote a rude novel about her). Rebecca West had a very active sex life, bedding other “names” after she parted from H.G.Wells. In her thirties, she married into wealth, settled down and took her writing - as both novelist and journalist - more seriously. She remained always essentially socialist and left-wing in her views but (and this was something that angered other lefties of her day) she was never attracted to Communism. Indeed, from the very beginnings of the Soviet regime in 1917, she realised that it was a destructive totalitarian system. This put her at odds with other left-wingers, especially when, in the McCarthy period, she was indelicate (but accurate) enough to point out that McCarthy’s followers had destroyed far fewer Communists than Communists themselves had. Her diatribes against imperialism and reaction never ceased, but she was pilloried by much of the Left for not toeing the Party line, even when many of her critics were not members of the Party themselves.
Rebecca West had a wary and somewhat sceptical attitude to religion. She was a sort of unorthodox Christian, respecting Jesus as a teacher but rejecting any transcendence. Christianity she saw as a good, but flawed, ethical system. Even so, there was a (brief) period in the Cold War when she seriously considered converting to Catholicism, given that the secular religion of Communism was getting out of hand and attracting too many people in the West who should have known better. Perhaps, she briefly calculated, it needed stiffer opposition from a real religion. However, this phase in her life passed and she reverted to her sceptical-but-respectful view of Christianity.
Now all this background is necessary to understanding why and how the (lightly revised) 1952 version of The Meaning of Treason came to be produced.
Rebecca West was one of only three women journalists to cover the Nuremberg trials. While still pondering the question of Nazi guilt, and of apparently intelligent men who had ordered or committed crimes against humanity, West then went to cover the treason trial of William Joyce in London in 1945. Widely nicknamed “Lord Haw-Haw” (although that nickname had originally been attached to another British broadcaster from Nazi Germany), William Joyce was the man who regularly made taunting or strident English-language propaganda broadcasts from Berlin, on behalf of Hitler’s regime. There was a slight question about the legality of trying Joyce for treason in that, technically, he was not a British subject. Even so, he was tried and hanged.
Over half of The Meaning of Treason is taken up with the life and trial of Joyce. This is Part One – over 180 pages of it – and it is provocatively called “The Revolutionary”. In some ways, says West, William Joyce had his admirable qualities – his intelligence and his physical courage and his stoicism during his trial and before his execution. But her main endeavour is to present him as a shabby and awkward character who simply did not fit in anywhere and who was constantly looking for an eminence and recognition that others would not give him. She attributes much of his psychological make-up to the fact that, although from an Irish Catholic background, he identified with the British authorities in his youth and boasted of having been (at the age of 15!) an informer for the British militia, the Black-and-Tans, during the Irish War of Independence. Rebecca West sees him as being permanently disappointed that “his” authoritarian Britain had disappeared when Britain loosened its grip on Ireland and hard-line imperialist views became less fashionable. Therefore ever afterwards, argues Rebecca West, William Joyce was trying to find a substitute and a hard-line authoritarian figure to worship. These he eventually found, first in Oswald Mosley and British Fascism, then (when he had broken with Mosley) in Hitler and Nazism. She tells of his radio broadcasts and his inheriting the name “Lord Haw-Haw”, but she shows how he always had this love-hate thing about Britain. He was fully aware – as Germany was losing the war – that he would face trial and probable execution when and if he was caught by the Allies. But even his anti-Jewish rants took second place to his permanent sense of hurt that Britain was no longer “his” imperialist Britain, which should have been only too happy to ally itself to Hitler and join his campaign against non-Aryans.
In telling Joyce’s story, Rebecca West also glances at other British broadcasters for the Nazis, such as the ridiculous Walter Purdy, who tried to save himself from a treason charge by pretending that his propaganda broadcasts contained coded messages to assist RAF pilots. Staking her own her moral outlook on Christian verities, albeit very broadly interpreted, West is particularly outraged by one British Nazi propagandist who purported to be a Catholic priest, “Father Donovan”, and gave simpering pieties over German radio. But her main focus is on the psycho-pathology of Joyce, whom she sees as a type of the “The Revolutionary” who has both a sense of self-importance and a sense of “injured merit” and who seeks to change society by violence. And, of course, these characteristics are as common on the hard Left as on the hard Right.
Part Two of The Meaning of Treason, “The Insane Root” deals more summarily with the Nazi collaborator and recruiter John Amery (just a wastrel and a shit – he and Joyce were the only ones to be hanged after the war) and with the arrogant Scottish soldier Norman Baillie-Stewart, who was also a broadcaster from Nazi Germany but who received a lighter sentence. Part Three, “The Children”, covers the pathetic – and apparently mentally-impaired – teenager Kenneth Edward, who was induced to leave a p.o.w. camp in Germany and join the Nazi “British Free Corps”; and the p.o.w. camp informer “Stoker” Rose. British justice dealt with both lightly. Rebecca West’s intention is to present all as pathetic creatures, and this the book successfully does. One gains the distinct impression that during the war, the Nazis recruited no really significant or influential Britons – just some scrapings.
And that was where the book ended in 1947.
In the 1952 edition is an additional chapter, Part Four, “The New Phase”, which deals with the first “atom spies”, who handed over to the Soviet Union secret information about the development of nuclear weapons. They were Dr Trevor Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs. West presents Nunn May as operating with a scientist’s deluded faith in his own objectivity and impartiality in judging world affairs; and Klaus Fuchs as suffering from a Quakerism gone wrong. It is, in her view, all very well to preach universal peace and claim to be equalising American and Soviet arms – but it involved putting weapons of mass destructiveness into the hands of a totalitarian state.
It is this section which may have given the book’s original (1947) reviewers pause. It is one thing to point out the psycho-pathology and flawed characters of extreme right-wing traitors but – oh dear! – fancy saying the same things about left-wing traitors! Yet, after all, the book’s very title tells us that Rebecca West was always looking for the “meaning” of treason, and she locates this meaning in the inability of traitors to feel real solidarity with their compatriots.
Much of The Meaning of Treason is thoughtful and intelligent analysis. At the same time, much of it is speculative, over-written and certainly under-documented. You long for footnotes to verify the many conversations which West reconstructs. You itch for fewer of the novelist’s stylistic tricks and more of the journalist’s craft with hard names, dates and facts. Frankly, some parts of The Meaning of Treason are windy rhetoric, including the very last page of the 1952 edition, which literally extols the domestic virtues of hearth and home.
This is certainly a book of its time (the early Cold War), and while one can endorse much that Rebecca West says about the nature of spies and traitors, one also notes some inevitable historical ironies. How often Rebecca West extols the efficiency of Britain’s spy service. How little she (or anybody else at the time) knew Britain’s spook service was enfeebled by the fact that the likes of Kim Philby had their hands on so many of its levers.
A few adjustments were made to the book in a slight revision of 1956 as some more spies came to light. But the next decade, having become aware of the Philby factor, Rebecca West totally re-cast and re-wrote her book as The New Meaning of Treason (published 1964) to include all the new spies.
But that’s a story I’m not telling here.